Two senior Republican lawmakers lambasted the Justice Department on Thursday for its "false denials" in the Fast and Furious gunrunning operation, demanding that the FBI turn over documents in its ongoing probe into the shooting death by Mexican bandits of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
In a seven-page letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said the lack of answers being given to Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry's family concerning his Dec. 14 killing and the delay in bringing those responsible to justice "only compounds their anguish."
"After 10 months of FBI investigation, Agent Terry's family and the American public deserve to know more about the status of the inquiry, the state of the evidence, and any connections to Operation Fast and Furious," they wrote.
Two AK-47 assault weapons purchased at a Glendale, Ariz., gun shop as a part of the Fast and Furious operation were found at the killing site — located just north of the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, Ariz.
But Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Mr. Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that neither the search-warrant affidavit nor an unsealed indictment in the case described the total number of guns recovered at the scene.
They said that based on the "limited information officially released about the circumstances," it appeared that the illegal immigrants who shot at Terry may have been armed with a total of five rifles.
"We know that two Fast and Furious rifles were part of a lot of three, all purchased at the same time over a year earlier," they said. "These circumstances naturally raise questions regarding the whereabouts of that third Fast and Furious gun, whether the other firearms were also connected to Fast and Furious, and the current location of all the firearms involved."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which oversaw the Fast and Furious operation, traced the two AK-47s almost immediately to a known "straw buyer" at the Glendale gun shop.
More than 2,000 weapons were purchased by the straw buyers between September 2009 and December 2010, most of which were illegally "walked" or taken into Mexico and turned over to Mexican drug smugglers. The weapons included AK-47s, Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles, FN 5.7mm semi-automatic pistols and other assorted handguns, rifles and shotguns — about half of which remain unaccounted for.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform panel, said Thursday that he had serious concerns about the Issa-Grassley letter, adding he was shocked that Mr. Issa would continue pushing an already-disproved theory that the FBI was hiding a third weapon.
"Rather than acknowledging this embarrassing mistake and apologizing for making false accusations about the FBI, Chairman Issa's letter is an unprecedented attack on the integrity and credibility of law enforcement that could seriously jeopardize the ongoing prosecution," he said.
Mr. Cummings said Mr. Issa told "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer on Sunday that he suspected the FBI had recovered a third gun at the scene of the slaying, but was hiding that evidence to protect a confidential informant.
The Justice Department called the accusation false, saying it "not only maligns the dedicated agents investigating the murder of Agent Terry, it mischaracterizes evidence in an ongoing case." It said the item Mr. Issa referred to was a Terry blood sample, not a firearm.
On Thursday, FBI spokeswoman Kathy Wright said the bureau had received the letter and "will respond appropriately."
Mr. Issa and Mr. Grassley, in the letter, said several emails between ATF personnel initially showed "confusion over whether there were two or three weapons being traced." They said that given all the circumstances, it was reasonable to ask the FBI to clarify what it learned about how many guns the Terry assailants possessed and what happened to them.
"This investigation will be more productive and beneficial for both the bureau and Congress if there is mutual respect for the legitimate roles and responsibilities of both institutions, consistent with the principle of comity between our separate branches of government," they wrote.
"That sort of respect is not fostered by the presumption that every question or document request is equivalent to an accusation," they said.
In the letter, the two lawmakers requested information on why a ballistics test in the Terry shooting was "inconclusive"; asked if there was any other evidence suggesting additional Fast and Furious weapons were involved; asked if the weapon in the shooting had specifically been identified; and whether there was any information that a third weapon killed the agent.
Mr. Issa and Mr. Grassley also asked the FBI to provide information on how many shots were fired during the encounter; when FBI and ATF agents arrived at the scene; if the FBI sought to trace any weapons in other cases to determine if they were part of Fast and Furious; and how many suspects remain at large in the Terry case and why.
Also being sought are all communications and documents involving the Terry investigation.
"Our oversight efforts seek to ensure public confidence in federal law enforcement by providing an independent check on its operations in a matter of great controversy," the lawmakers said. "So, rather than presuming the worst about our motives and interpreting our questions as accusations, it would be more productive to simply answer them."
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