Sen. Chuck Grassley, investigating whether an undercover federal operation contributed to the slaying of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, said Thursday the ATF instructed an Arizona gun dealer to engage in "suspicious sales" despite the dealer's concerns that the weapons could "end up south of the border."
In a letter this week to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Iowa senator described as "untrue" personal assurances the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gave to the gun dealer in an email saying "safeguards were in place" to prevent further distribution of the numerous weapons sold, including AK-47 assault rifles.
Mr. Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said emails between ATF officials and a federal firearms licensee in Arizona obtained by his staff show that the dealer took his concerns directly to the agency and later met with the U.S. attorney's office to discuss the matter, but was told to continue the sales. One email, Mr. Grassley said, was sent six months before two AK-47s sold by the dealer were found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry's killing.
In a speech Thursday on the Senate floor, Mr. Grassley said the ATF was supposed to stop criminals from trafficking guns to Mexican drug cartels but actually had made the process "easier." He said the government "actually encouraged gun dealers to sell multiple firearms to known and suspected traffickers."
Mr. Holder has asked the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter and, according to spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler, "has made clear to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors working along the [southwest] border that no one should allow guns to illegally cross."
In recent congressional testimony, Mr. Holder said questions raised by ATF agents about the way operations have been conducted have to be "taken seriously."
"We continue to work with our law enforcement counterparts here and in Mexico to stem the flow of weapons, cash and drugs across our borders and interdict people whose only goal is to evade law enforcement," Ms. Schmaler said. "Fighting criminal activity along the southwest border — including the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico — has been a priority of this administration and this Department of Justice."
Mr. Terry, 40, was shot Dec. 14 during a gunfight 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border while attempting to arrest Mexican bandits who prey on illegal aliens. He was waiting with three other Border Patrol agents in a remote area when the gunbattle erupted. None of the other agents was injured. Mr. Terry died the next day in a hospital.
Mr. Grassley said ATF agents also had expressed to him their concerns that the agency, as part of "Project Gunrunner," had allowed guns to "walk" across the border despite warnings that someone could get killed.
One agent who has claimed whistle-blower status is George Gillett Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the ATF's Phoenix field office. He oversaw the Gunrunner operation and its "Fast and Furious" component, a sting that funneled more than 1,700 smuggled weapons from Arizona to Mexico. He has not been available for comment.
According to Mr. Grassley, ATF supervisor David Voth told the Arizona gun dealer in an April 2010 email he understood his concerns considering the "frequency with which some individuals under investigation by our office have been purchasing firearms from your business." But he said ATF was "continually monitoring these suspects using a variety of investigative techniques which I cannot go into [in] detail."
Following that email, he said the ATF arranged a May 2010 meeting between the dealer and the U.S. attorney's office, during which Mr. Grassley said prosecutors "assured the gun dealer in even stronger terms that there were safeguards in place to prevent further distribution of the weapons after being purchased from his business."
"As we now know, those assurances proved to be untrue," Mr. Grassley said in the letter.
In June 2010, he said the dealer again expressed concern, saying he "wanted to make sure" that none of the firearms he sold at the ATF's direction "could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys. … I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents' safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ."
"So, not only were the ATF agents who later blew the whistle predicting that this operation would end in tragedy, so were the gun dealers — even as ATF urged them to make the sales," Mr. Grassley said. "The Justice Department's claim that ATF never knowingly sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers is simply not credible."
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