Several top ATF officials will testify Tuesday before a House committee investigating the controversial "Fast and Furious" weapons program and likely will be asked whether they were ordered not to tell Mexican authorities that guns recovered at crime scenes in that country had been illegally purchased in the U.S.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, called in the wake of acting ATF Director Kenneth E. Melson's closed-door testimony that the Justice Department sought to shift blame for Fast and Furious away from its political appointees, also will get its first opportunity to question ATF supervisors who have defended the program and the Justice Department.
"Examining the accounts of witnesses who did not participate in Operation Fast and Furious, but were nonetheless disturbed as they watched it unfold is critical to understanding the scope of this flawed program," said Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and the committee chairman.
"This testimony is especially important in light of the Justice Departments willful efforts to withhold key evidence from investigators about what occurred, who knew and who authorized this reckless operation," he said.
The hearing, according to committee spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins, will feature the testimony of officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who "saw the steady stream of Operation Fast and Furious guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico and were given orders from superiors not to alert Mexican authorities."
Those scheduled to testify are William McMahon, ATF deputy assistant director for field operations in Phoenix and Mexico; William Newell, former ATF special agent in charge at the Phoenix field division; Carlos Canino, ATF acting attache to Mexico; Darren Gil, former ATF attache to Mexico; Jose Wall, ATF senior agent in Tijuana, Mexico; and Lorren Leadmon, ATF intelligence operations specialist.
Mr. Issa and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have been investigating Operation Fast and Furious for several months, concerned that "approximately 2,000 heavy-duty assault type firearms" were allowed to be purchased by known "straw buyers" in this country and then "walked" to drug smugglers in Mexico.
Mr. Melson, during two July 4 interviews with congressional investigators, said ATF's senior leadership wanted to cooperate in the congressional probe but was stopped by Justice Department officials who took control of all briefing and document requests. He testified that some of the suspected gun traffickers targeted by ATF might have been working with the FBI and DEA without ATF's knowledge.
The Justice Department has denied trying to block the investigation, and spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has noted that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has asked the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter.
"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."
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