The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, who has questioned whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed suspected gun smugglers to purchase assault rifles that later were used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent, wants to know whether ATF ordered its agents not to cooperate in his investigation of the shooting.
In a letter Friday to ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson, Sen. Charles E. Grassley said emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act “appear to contain proposed guidance” on how to respond to questions from the senator’s office, including instructions that agents were “in no way obligated to respond” and should refer inquiries to ATF’s office of congressional affairs.
The Iowa Republican described the emails as “further attempts to prevent direct communications with my office” by telling agents they were “not authorized to disclose nonpublic information.
“It is of grave concern because, as you know, such attempts to prevent direct communications with Congress are not a lawfully authorized activity of any officer or employee of the United States whose salary is paid with appropriated funds,” he wrote.
Mr. Grassley has raised questions on whether ATF allowed gun smugglers to purchase and keep assault rifles that later were used to kill Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, and if the agency allowed the sale of the weapons to “known and suspected straw purchasers for an illegal trafficking ring near the Southwest border.” He said two of those weapons reportedly were recovered at the site of the Terry shooting.
The senator said ATF agents told his staff that the agency, as part of “Project Gunrunner” and its “Fast and Furious” component, allowed guns to “walk” across the border, despite warnings from agents in the field the policy would result in somebody getting killed. Fast and Furious was a gunrunning sting set up by ATF that funneled more than 1,700 smuggled weapons from Arizona to Mexico.
Terry, 40, was attempting to arrest bandits who prey on illegal aliens when he was fatally shot about 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mr. Grassley said ATF had been tracking the gun purchases of one of those arrested in the shooting, Jaime Avila, since November 2009 when he made his first buys at a Glendale, Ariz., gun shop. He said Avila bought three more weapons at the same dealer on Jan. 9, 2010, and three AK-47 assault rifles on Jan. 16. Over the next several months, he said, ATF continued to track his multiple firearms purchases, including two .50-caliber rifles in June 2010.
While at least one Arizona gun dealer wanted to stop participating in sales “like those to Avila,” he said ATF encouraged the dealer to continue selling to suspected traffickers.
After the Terry shooting, law enforcement officials recovered from the scene two assault rifles that were traced by the agency and matched two of the three rifles purchased by Avila “and tracked by ATF nearly a year earlier.”
The Justice Department, which oversees ATF, has denied that guns sold in purchases sanctioned by federal firearms agents were later used in the shootout that left Terry dead.
In his letter, Mr. Grassley said for Congress to exercise its oversight authority, it is “crucial” that agency employees are free to communicate directly with members of Congress and their committee staffs. He said without such unfiltered communications, “Congress would still be unaware of and unable to inquire” about allegations involving the Terry death.
“If people have concerns, they should be able to express themselves without feeling pressure from their bosses,” Mr. Grassley said, noting that one agent who contacted him was George Gillett, assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Phoenix field division.
He said Mr. Gillett chose to tell ATF he had protected contacts with Congress and described his information as “an essential component of our inquiry.” He said Mr. Gillett participated in two meetings with staffs from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“As you know, retaliation for such communications is prohibited by law,” Mr. Grassley said in the letter.