Newly obtained Justice Department memos show that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was told about the controversial “Fast and Furious” weapons investigation as early as July 2010, apparently contradicting testimony he gave before a House committee in May saying he learned of the operation just weeks earlier.
A July 10, 2010, memo to Mr. Holder from Michael Walther, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), specifically identifies the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives-led Fast and Furious operation, says when it began, names the federal law enforcement agencies involved, and identifies the major investigative targets.
The memo, sent to Mr. Holder through the office of the acting deputy attorney general, also notes that the operation involved a Phoenix-based firearms-trafficking ring and says “straw purchasers” were responsible for buying 1,500 firearms “that were then supplied to Mexican drug-trafficking cartels.”
The Walther memo also says the straw buyers had direct ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel, “which is suspected of providing $1 million for the purchase of firearms in the greater Phoenix area.” A straw buyer is someone who purchases a weapon for someone who is unable to buy it himself.
The memo, first reported by CBS News, prompted calls Tuesday from Capitol Hill Republicans for a special prosecutor and led the White House to claim Mr. Holder misunderstood the questions, rather than lied, during the May congressional testimony.
On May 3, Mr. Holder told the House Judiciary Committee he only recently had become aware of the Fast and Furious operation, and never made mention of the 10-month-old Walther memo.
His comment came in response to a question from Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, who has been investigating the operation for several months and had asked the Justice Department on several occasions without success for more information.
“I’m not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks,” Mr. Holder testified.
On Tuesday, Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called on President Obama to instruct the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to determine whether members of Congress were misled by Mr. Holder during his testimony on what he knew about Fast and Furious.
Mr. Smith said that in response to the committee’s ongoing investigation, the department recently provided documents that “raise significant questions about the truthfulness of the attorney general’s testimony.”
“The department’s consistent response to Congress has been that Operation Fast and Furious was a discrete law enforcement effort largely isolated to the ATF office in Phoenix,” he said in the letter. “These documents appear to undermine this claim and bring into question statements made by Attorney General Holder to this committee.
“Allegations that senior Justice Department officials may have intentionally misled members of Congress are extremely troubling and must be addressed by an independent and objective special counsel,” he said.
Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican and a former prosecutor and judge, said an independent prosecutor should be named to find out if government officials broke the law in the operation. During an interview on a National Rifle Association radio show, he described the operation as a “failed, idiotic idea,” during which at least one weapon was used to kill a U.S. law enforcement official.
“The more we learn, the worse it gets,” he said.
Justice Department officials have denied that Mr. Holder misled the committee, saying he did not understand Mr. Issa’s question during the May 3 hearing. They said the attorney general was not aware until this year of the specifics of the Fast and Furious investigation and did not know that weapons were being walked into Mexico.
They noted that Mr. Holder has since ordered the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter, adding that “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.”
It is unclear when that inquiry might be completed.
Mr. Obama also has denied knowing about the Fast and Furious operation until it was reported by the news media.
The July 2010 memo, which is almost entirely redacted, is among several others leaked this week in which senior Justice Department officials mention the Fast and Furious probe.
Several of the memos also contained references to a separate investigation known as “Operation Wide Receiver” in Tucson, Ariz., which began in 2006 under the Bush administration and also involved the sale of weapons that ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartel members.
One of those separate memos was written in November 2010, in which Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, told Mr. Holder that a sealed indictment against suspected gun traffickers in Arizona — an apparent reference to Operation Wide Receiver — would remain under seal “until another investigation, Phoenix-based ‘Operation Fast and Furious,’ is ready for takedown.”
In a related Oct. 17, 2010, memo from Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, a Criminal Division official, to James Trusty, acting chief of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime and Gang Section, Mr. Weinstein asked whether the department should have Mr. Breuer talk to the media when the two operations, Fast and Furious and Wide Receiver, ended.
The next day, Mr. Trusty responded by saying, “I think so, but the timing will be tricky, too. It looks like we’ll be able to unseal the Tucson case sooner than Fast and Furious. It’s not clear how much we are involved in the main F and F case, but we have Tucson and now a new, related case with (redacted) targets. It’s not going to be a big surprise that a bunch of U.S. guns are being used in MX, so I’m not sure how much grief we get for ‘gun walking.’”
Those memos were included in what the Justice Department said was a packet of headlines the attorney general receives daily that do not include specific information.
Despite the overlaps with Wide Receiver, the memos clearly show that high-ranking Justice Department officials knew about Fast and Furious at least 10 months before Mr. Holder admitted any knowledge of it.
ATF has been at the center of a firestorm over the Fast and Furious investigation, which allowed guns to make their way to drug cartels in Mexico. Scores of weapons purchased in Phoenix by straw buyers ended up at the scene of several violent crimes, including the Dec. 14 fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry.
Two AK-47s assault rifles were found at the Terry killing site and later were traced to weapons purchased as part of Fast and Furious.
Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck per new list Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a July report that 1,000 weapons purchased in the operation remain unaccounted for, including AK-47 assault weapons and .50-caliber sniper rifles.
Mr. Grassley on Tuesday said Mr. Holder’s statements “don’t add up.” He said the attorney general told the House Judiciary Committee in May he first learned of Fast and Furious just a few weeks before the hearing, but that he personally handed Mr. Holder two letters about the probe in January.
“Now to find out he knew some pretty detailed information about the operation back in the summer of 2010 is troubling,” he said.
Mr. Grassley said the memos show that people high up in Justice “knew a great deal of information about Fast and Furious, including that guns were being walked” to Mexico. He said for the department to now claim it didn’t know operational details “is disingenuous at best.”