Guns seized in Mexico are believed to be part of a botched gun probe that led to drug cartels' receiving weapons.

Story highlights

"Operation Fast and Furious" let hundreds of guns reach Mexico, investigators say

Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to face tough questions at an upcoming Senate hearing

The botched ATF probe is a "black eye" for the Justice Department, former official says

But the controversy is not likely to become a major scandal, analyst tells CNN

CNN  — 

A botched gun probe that allowed hundreds of weapons to reach Mexico’s drug cartels is likely to be a lingering but not fatal controversy for the Obama administration, observers said Wednesday.

Republicans in Congress have been publicly pounding Justice Department officials since June, when whistleblowers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified to a House committee about the ill-fated “Operation Fast and Furious.” The operation, launched in 2009, was aimed at cutting off the flow of guns to Mexico’s drug cartels through straw buyers, but it allowed about 2,000 weapons to reach the hands of the cartels.

In December 2010, two weapons sold under the Fast and Furious program were found at the scene of the killing of a Border Patrol agent in the Arizona desert. ATF agents kept their Mexican counterparts in the dark about the probe even as rising numbers of guns crossed the border, and about 1,400 firearms remain unaccounted for, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported in July.

Congressional committees and the Justice Department’s independent inspector-general are now looking into what happened, with Republicans accusing Attorney General Eric Holder of trying to stiff-arm investigators. But as embarrassing as “Fast and Furious” may be, it’s not in the same league as administration-threatening scandals like Watergate or the Harding administration’s Teapot Dome, University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato said.

“The only scandals that matter in a presidential year are the ones that directly connect to a president,” Sabato said. He added, “Everybody admits it was a dumb idea,” but similar programs were launched during the Bush administration.

Nor does the controversy about “Fast and Furious” appear to be a mortal threat to anyone’s job at this point, said Peter Toren, a former federal prosecutor and Justice Department official.

“It’s certainly a black eye for the Justice Department,” which oversees the ATF, Toren said. But he added, “This is more of a botched operation rather than a scandal.”

The flap has so far resulted in the ouster of acting ATF chief Kenneth Melson and the resignation of the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, in August. President Barack Obama told ABC News in October, “People who screwed up will be held accountable.”

And Holder is likely to face tough questions about the matter next Tuesday, when he is slated to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee’s ranking Republican, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, is a leading critic of the probe.

Republicans have recently questioned whether Holder misled Congress about when he learned about the program. Holder told the House Judiciary Committee in May that he had known about the Fast and Furious program for just a few weeks; Republicans say recently released Justice Department documents show the attorney general actually knew about the program in July 2010, but a memo to Holder that referenced the operation does not appear to contain any of the controversial tactics it employed.

Toren said Republicans are “understandably” trying to lay the blame for the fiasco on Holder. But Holder doesn’t appear to have had “intimate knowledge” of the ATF program.

“There have been some suggestions that at least he knew something about it. He might have known the name, he might have been briefed that there was an operation,” Toren said. “I haven’t seen anything that suggests that he should be held responsible for the program.”

Holder slapped back in an October letter reaffirming his testimony and calling GOP allegations about the program “irresponsible and inflammatory.” And he appears to have caught a break this week, when a top deputy told senators he failed to warn Holder and other Justice officials about the tactics used in “Fast and Furious” after a previous operation.

Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, told a Judiciary subcommittee he first learned of the tactic of allowing illegally purchased guns to leave gun shops in April 2010, regarding a previous operation known as “Wide Receiver.”

“I wish that at that time that I had said clearly to the deputy attorney general and the attorney general that in this case, ‘Wide Receiver,’ we had determined in 2006 and 2007 guns had ‘walked.’ I did not do that, and I regret not doing that,” Breuer admitted.

Sabato said Breuer “is taking one for the team” by admitting the mistake. His testimony may not satisfy Republicans, but, “There isn’t a smoking gun here for somebody as high as Holder,” Sabato said.

Nevertheless, Toren said, it’s likely that the questions are going to keep coming as the investigations continue.

“I think it would be best to get out in front of it, say what really happened and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.