The closed-door testimony of ATF's acting director, saying that the Justice Department was obstructing a congressional investigation, has prompted an expansion of that ongoing probe into the controversial "Fast and Furious" weapons-smuggling operation.
"We'll go wherever the investigation takes us," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a key inquisitor in probing the operation, during which guns, including AK-47 assault rifles, were "walked" into Mexico.
He said the weekend testimony of Kenneth E. Melson, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, had corroborated information that "more agencies within the Justice Department may have been involved in allowing guns to fall into the hands of known straw purchasers."
A spokesman for Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Thursday that the Melson testimony "raises new questions" about the scope of the program and certainly "justifies an expansion of the investigation."
"After talking with the acting ATF director, I think we have a greater insight into what happened and what questions need to be asked to lead to some final answers as to who authorized this program and why," said spokesman Frederick Hill, whose boss also has been a key player in the ongoing investigation.
Meanwhile Thursday, Mexican police released a videotaped interview of Jesus Enrique Rejon Aguilar, in which the recently captured No. 3 leader of the Los Zetas drug cartel said "all the weapons" the Zetas use were "bought in the United States" and that "even the American government itself was selling the weapons."
Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa have been investigating accusations that Operation Fast and Furious, part of an anti-gun initiative known as "Project Gunrunner," allowed thousands of weapons to be purchased by "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 found at the site of separate shootings that claimed the lives of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata, who was killed by Rejon Aguilar's Zetas, and U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry.
The lawmakers also want to know what role other federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), played in the operation.
Last weekend, Mr. Melson said during two closed-door interviews that the senior leadership at the agency wanted to cooperate in the congressional probe but were stopped by Justice Department officials who took control of all briefing and document requests. Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa, in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., accused Justice of "muzzling" the director.
Mr. Melson confirmed information the committee has been investigating that some of the suspected gun traffickers targeted by ATF in the Fast and Furious probe may have been working with the FBI and DEA without ATF's knowledge.
He 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 he became aware of "this startling possibility" only after the killing of Mr. Terry and the indictments of the straw purchasers.
"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 in the letter to Mr. Holder. "The acting director said ATF was kept in the dark about certain activities of other agencies, including DEA and FBI."
In the videotape, Rejon Aguilar told Mexican police that his gang - considered that country's most violent - had armed itself with weapons "bought in the United States."
Mexican law enforcement authorities have long accused the U.S. of failing to control the flow of weapons into that country - many of which have been used in a brutal turf war over the control of drug smuggling routes into the United States that so far has cost more than 35,000 lives.
In the videotaped interrogation, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, Rejon Aguilar, a former member of an elite Mexican paratroop and intelligence battalion known as the Special Air Mobile Force Group, told Mexican police, "Whatever you want, you can get" from the U.S.
Mr. Grassley noted that it has been "well documented" that hundreds of guns may have crossed the border into Mexico because of the "reckless policy known as Fast and Furious," but the hundreds of thousands of guns used by Mexican drug cartel members are not primarily from U.S.-based gun dealers.
Instead, he said, evidence shows that other sources, including some in Central America, help supply the weapons.
Rejon Aguilar was taken into custody Sunday in the Mexico City suburb of Atizapan "without firing a shot," according to Mexican federal police. He was one of Mexico's most-wanted men, and the U.S. Justice, State and Homeland Security departments had announced a reward of up to $5 million for his arrest and conviction.
Mexican police said he was "connected to the attack" in the daylight ambush in Mexico of Zapata and his partner, ICE Agent Victor Avila Jr., who was wounded. They said Rejon Aguilar was in charge of operations for the Zetas in San Luis Potosi when the American agents were ambushed.
Neither of the U.S. agents was armed, as the Mexican government does not allow U.S. law enforcement personnel to carry weapons.
More than two dozen Zetas have been arrested in the case. They include Julian Zapata Espinoza, identified as the gang's cell leader in San Luis Potosi, and the gang's suspected paymaster, Mario "El Mayito" Jimenez.
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