The Justice Department blocked senior ATF leaders from cooperating with Congress in its investigation of the "Fast and Furious" weapons operation, ordering them not to respond to questions and taking full control of replying to briefing and document requests, the agency's top boss told congressional investigators.
Kenneth E. Melson, the embattled acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told Senate Judiciary Committee and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigators during a secret interview designed to circumvent Justice Department attorneys that he was "sick to his stomach" when he learned about problems with the controversial operation.
According to a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Mr. Melson told the panel's investigators that after he and ATF's senior leadership team reassigned every manager involved in Operation Fast and Furious, they were prohibited from telling Congress about the reassignments.
Mr. Melson was secretly interviewed Monday by investigators from the two committees, who have been looking into accusations that ATF allowed the sale of thousands of weapons to "straw buyers" in Arizona and Texas that later were "walked" unchecked to drug smugglers in Mexico.
At least three of those weapons, including two AK-47 assault rifles, later were discovered at two sites where U.S. law enforcement officials were slain. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata was killed in a daylight ambush on a major Mexican highway, and U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry died in a shooting with bandits just north of the Arizona-Mexico border.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have unsuccessfully sought information on the Fast and Furious operation over the past several months.
Part of ATF's "Project Gunrunner," Operation Fast and Furious was highly touted by the Obama administration. With pressure mounting from the Justice Department and the White House, Mr. Melson has resisted efforts to resign or be fired.
Mr. Melson originally had been scheduled by the Justice Department to be interviewed July 13, with attorneys from both the department and ATF present. Instead, he opted to appear before the investigators in a voluntary interview Monday with his personal attorney, Richard Cullen.
In the letter Tuesday to Mr. Holder, Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa said they were "disappointed" that the Justice Department failed to tell Mr. Melson he had the right to choose a voluntary interview rather than participate with counsel representing the department's interests.
The two Republican lawmakers accused the Justice Department of seeking to "limit and control his communications with Congress."
The lawmakers accused the department of "muzzling" Mr. Melson and encouraged Mr. Holder not to retaliate against the director, describing as "inappropriate" any effort to make him the "fall guy in an attempt to prevent further congressional oversight."
Mr. Melson also told the investigators that some of the suspected gun traffickers targeted by ATF in the Fast and Furious probe may actually have been informants for the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - without ATF's knowledge.
"We have very real indications from several sources that some of the gun-trafficking 'higher-ups' that the ATF sought to identify were already known to other agencies and may even have been paid as informants," Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa wrote. "The acting director said ATF was kept in the dark about certain activities of other agencies, including DEA and FBI."
The lawmakers said Mr. Melson learned from ATF field agents that information obtained by these agencies could have had a material impact on the Operation Fast and Furious investigation.
Mr. Melson also confirmed concerns expressed by several ATF agents during their recent testimony before Mr. Issa's committee that while they witnessed the transfer of weapons from the straw buyers to others, they were not allowed to follow the guns further as they made their way to Mexico.
He told the investigators, according to the letter, that he became aware of "this startling possibility only after the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and the indictments of the straw purchasers, which we now know were substantially delayed by the U.S. attorney's office and Main Justice."
"It is one thing to argue that the ends justify the means in an attempt to defend a policy that puts building a big case ahead of stopping known criminals from getting guns," Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa wrote. "Yet it is a much more serious matter to conceal from Congress the possible involvement of other agencies in identifying and maybe even working with the same criminals that Operation Fast and Furious was trying to identify.
"If this information is accurate, then the whole misguided operation might have been cut short if not for catastrophic failures to share key information," they said.
The Feb. 15 shooting of Zapata was the second time authorities discovered that at least one of the weapons found at the killing site was traceable to a suspect under surveillance by the ATF. Two of the weapons found at the site of the Dec. 15 killing of Terry were traced to straw buyers in Arizona who had "walked" the guns to Mexican drug smugglers.
Mr. Holder has asked the Justice Department's office of inspector general to investigate the matter.<t-5>
In a response letter to Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa on Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said the Justice Department "in no way sought to limit appropriate access to information concerning Operation Fast and Furious."
Like Congress, he said, the Justice Department "is deeply interested in understanding the facts" surrounding the operation and had assigned "dozens of attorneys and reviewers to work on the committee's extremely broad requests for information."
Mr. Weich also said the Justice Department was "puzzled" by criticism that it had failed to produce documents and make witnesses available, noting that more than 2,000 pages of documents had been produced to the committee or made available for review.
He said the lawmakers' letter "unfairly criticizes both the department's efforts to address the committee's concerns and the integrity of the professionals at the department who worked <t$>long hours to make responsive information available to you."
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