The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday criticized the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for failing to produce any documents in response to a March 31 subpoena seeking information on its handling of gun trafficking operations into Mexico.
In a letter to ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson, Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, said the committee had sought documents showing whether the agency made “reckless and inappropriate decisions” as part of its Project Gunrunner operation that “may have contributed to the deaths of both U.S. and Mexican citizens.”
Mr. Issa dismissed Justice Department concerns that the documents were part of a pending criminal investigation and, as a result, could not be released, saying they were pertinent to a congressional inquiry. Citing Supreme Court precedents and previous Congressional investigations, he said: “We are not conducting a concurrent investigation with the Department of Justice, but rather an independent investigation of the Department of Justice — specifically, of allegations that the reckless and inappropriate decisions of department officials have created a serious public safety hazard.”
He said the subpoena was issued after ATF and Justice Department officials “failed to cooperate in good faith with the committee’s investigation.”
Earlier this month, Mr. Issa questioned the ATF’s role in the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, 40, who died Dec. 15 a day after a gunfight about 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border south of Tucson. He was shot while attempting to arrest bandits who prey on illegal immigrants.
Echoing questions first raised by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Issa asked whether ATF allowed suspected gun smugglers to purchase and keep assault rifles that later were used to kill Mr. Terry.
Mr. Grassley sought information on whether Project Gunrunner contributed to the Terry killing, saying ATF instructed an Arizona gun dealer to engage in “suspicious sales” despite the dealer’s concerns the weapons could “end up south of the border.” He has described as “untrue” personal assurances ATF gave to the gun dealer in an email saying “safeguards were in place” to prevent further distribution of the numerous weapons sold, including AK-47 assault rifles.
He also said emails between ATF officials and a federal firearms licensee in Arizona obtained by his staff show that the dealer later met with the U.S. attorney’s office to discuss the matter, but was told to continue the sales. One email, Mr. Grassley said, was sent six months before two AK-47s sold by the dealer were found at the scene of Mr. Terry’s killing.
Mr. Grassley also said ATF agents had expressed to him their concerns that the agency had allowed guns to “walk” across the border despite the warnings. One of those agents is George Gillett Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Phoenix field office, who oversaw the Gunrunner operation and its “Fast and Furious” component, a sting that funneled more than 1,700 smuggled weapons from Arizona to Mexico. He has not been available for comment.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has asked the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department has “made clear to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors working along the [southwest] border that no one should allow guns to illegally cross.” She noted that Mr. Holder in recent congressional testimony said questions raised by ATF agents about the way operations had been conducted have been “taken seriously.”
“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.”
Mr. Issa noted that the committee’s request for documents has been pending since March 16, and that a request from Mr. Grassley has been pending since January. While the Justice Department has not produced any documents, Mr. Issa’s letter included several documents obtained by the committee elsewhere. He said those documents show the Justice Department knew the public danger the operation created and the role of top Justice Department officials in approving the operation.
“Efforts by the Department of Justice and ATF to stonewall the committee in its investigation by erroneously, but matter-of-factly, citing an internal department policy as a preventative measure for denying access to documents have only enhanced suspicions that such officials have played a role in reckless decisions that have put lives at risk,” he said.