The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee says the Justice Department has refused to make available 11 of 12 department witnesses called by the panel for transcribed interviews in the ongoing investigation of the botched Fast and Furious weapons operation.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said that despite the department’s promises of good-faith cooperation in the probe, only one witness has been provided so far — former U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke in Arizona, who resigned in August two weeks after he ended his testimony about Fast and Furious before a House committee, during which he took responsibility for mistakes.
“The department has refused to schedule interviews with any of the other 11 witnesses. That’s not the good-faith cooperation I was promised, and it is unacceptable,” Mr. Grassley said. “If this controversy has taught us anything, it is that you have to talk directly to the people who know the facts.
“If Congress had relied on the department’s official talking points, we still wouldn’t know the truth today,” he said Thursday during the committee’s executive business meeting.
Mr. Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have been investigating the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) Fast and Furious operation for several months.
They discovered that more than 2,000 weapons illegally purchased by “straw buyers” at gun shops in Phoenix, including hundreds of AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles, were allowed to be “walked” to drug smugglers in Mexico.
More than 1,400 of the weapons are believed still to be unaccounted for. Two AK-47s purchased at a gun shop in Glendale, Ariz., also were discovered at the site of the shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, killed during a gunfight with Mexican bandits just north of the border near Nogales, Ariz.
Mr. Grassley also noted that during a Justice Department oversight hearing on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. “shifted slightly” from an earlier denial in May that “gunwalking” had occurred during the Fast and Furious operation to “a wait-and-see position,” noting that he didn’t know if guns had been walked and would wait for the results of an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.
“We have come a long way since May,” Mr. Grassley said. “On Tuesday, the attorney general finally admitted that the whistle-blowers were right all along about gunwalking in Fast and Furious. While I am pleased that the attorney general is no longer trying to deny the obvious, he did not fully own up to his responsibility.”
Mr. Grassley noted that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, admitted last week that he had known about the ATF walking guns since April 2010. Mr. Grassley said Mr. Breuer said he regretted not telling the attorney general about it earlier.
He said Mr. Breuer also admitted that he knew the Justice Department’s blanket assertion that ATF does not walk guns was false, having to acknowledge the validity of documents showing that he had been briefed about guns walking in an earlier operation called Wide Receiver.
Mr. Grassley said it also appears from those documents that Mr. Breuer’s deputy, Jason Weinstein, knew about ATF’s walking guns in both operations.
“Anyone who knew about gunwalking in any case also knew that the department’s initial letter to me was false,” he said. “The attorney general said the letter was based on the best information available at the time, but senior officials at headquarters, like Breuer and Weinstein, knew better.”
Mr. Grassley said Mr. Weinstein briefed committee staff on Feb. 10 but failed to disclose what he knew about ATF’s walking guns.
Mr. Issa this week also asked Ronald Weich, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, to explain who prepared or helped prepare a Feb. 4 letter he sent to Mr. Grassley denying that guns had been walked into Mexico as part of Fast and Furious.
He said the congressional investigation of the operation has shown that the statement was untrue and that senior Justice Department officials knew at the time Mr. Weich made the denial that it was untrue.