House panel subpoenas ATF for documents on gun program

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The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Friday announced the issuance of a subpoena to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for documents concerning “Project Gunrunner” and records the agency has on the shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

“The unwillingness of this administration — most specifically the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — to answer questions about this deadly serious matter is deeply troubling,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican. “Allegations surrounding this program are serious and the ability of the Justice Department to conduct an impartial investigation is in question.

“Congressional oversight is necessary to get the truth about what is really happening,” he said.

Agent Terry, 40, was killed Dec. 15 during a gunfight about 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson while attempting to arrest bandits who prey on illegal aliens. He was waiting with three other agents in a remote area north when the gunbattle with the bandits erupted. None of the other agents was injured.

Questions have been raised, first by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on whether ATF allowed suspected gun smugglers to purchase and keep assault rifles that later were used in the killing of Agent Terry. Mr. Grassley has sought answers to questions on whether ATF allowed the sale to “known and suspected straw purchasers for an illegal trafficking ring near the Southwest border,” saying two of those weapons reportedly were recovered at the site of Terry shooting.

The Justice Department has denied that guns sold in purchases sanctioned by federal firearms agents were later used in the shootout that left Agent Terry dead. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ronald Weich said in a letter to Mr. Grassley that the claim was false.

Mr. Issa has since questioned ATF’s handling of gun trafficking into Mexico, including the allegation that the agency has had a policy of permitting — and even encouraging — the movement of guns into Mexico by straw purchasers. He said that practice may have contributed to the deaths of hundreds on both sides of the border, including federal law enforcement agents.

Last month, Mr. Issa asked ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson in a letter for documents related to Project Gunrunner, its “Fast and Furious” component and records on the death of Agent Terry. He said ATF failed to meet a March 30 deadline for producing the documents and refused to voluntarily commit to any date for producing them.

Through Project Gunrunner, ATF works in conjunction with domestic and international law enforcement partners to identify, disrupt and dismantle the firearms and explosives trafficking infrastructure of criminal organizations operating in Mexico, along the border, and other areas of the U.S.

Its cornerstone is intelligence-led firearms trafficking investigations, which ATF has said involves the collection of information from a variety of sources and information received from firearms tracing — allowing the weapons to be “walked” into Mexico. “Operation Fast and Furious” was a gunrunning sting set up by ATF that funneled more than 1,700 smuggled weapons from Arizona to Mexico.

The committee subpoena seeks, among other things, documents and communications concerning those persons responsible for authorizing the decision to “walk guns to Mexico in order to follow them and capture a bigger fish,” and any investigative reports by ATF or any other Justice Department agency following the fatal shooting of Agent Terry, including information pertaining to two guns found at the crime scene that may have been connected to Project Gunrunner.

Mr. Issa said the committee also wants documents and communications relating to complaints or objections by ATF agents about “encouraging, sanctioning or otherwise allowing” gun dealers to sell firearms to known or suspected straw buyers; the failure to maintain surveillance on known or suspected straw buyers; the failure to maintain operational control over weapons purchased by known or suspected straw buyers, or letting known or suspected straw buyers with American guns enter Mexico.

“President Obama recently stated that neither he nor Attorney General (Eric H.) Holder authorized this operation,” Mr. Issa said. “His statement did not specify whether Attorney General Holder was aware of this policy or who did authorize it. The committee’s investigation seeks answers to these questions and the true nature of Project Gunrunner.”

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