The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to know who at the Justice Department saw a memo from an ATF agent in Phoenix outlining questionable tactics in the Fast and Furious operation that was sent to Washington a day before the department denied any weapons had been “walked” to Mexico.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Sen. Chuck Grassley, who first began the Fast and Furious investigation in 2010, said the memo “traveled rapidly through the chain of command” at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and possibly was forwarded to Justice in Washington on Feb. 3, 2011.
On Feb. 4, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told the Iowa lawmaker in a letter that allegations of gunwalking were “false.”
Mr. Grassley said his office was told that agent Gary Styers’ memo “caused such a stir that ATF planned to put a panel together to address the allegations, but someone within DOJ suppressed the idea.” He said the memo would have given Justice Department officials important information about what was happening in Fast and Furious.
He told Mr. Holder that discovering who in the chain of command had reviewed the memo “has not been easy” and that his requests to interview officials who might corroborate accounts have been denied. He said the Justice Department “may have withheld relevant documents from what it said were the deliberative materials” used to draft Mr. Weich’s Feb. 4 denial letter.
“Without the complete, documented set of facts, fair and informed conclusions can’t be drawn, and the Justice Department’s lack of transparency about what it knew and when about Operation Fast and Furious is unacceptable, especially in light of the connections to the killing of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and an unknown number of Mexican citizens,” Mr. Grassley said.
The House voted for contempt charges against Mr. Holder last week, but has not stopped its Fast and Furious investigation. A senior Justice Department official told reporters the department will respond “appropriately” to the Grassley letter.
Mr. Grassley said congressional investigators want to know when persons at the Justice Department become aware of Fast and Furious tactics and whether the department provided false information to Congress regarding the gunwalking allegations.
“I believe the department should have been abundantly aware of allegations of gunwalking, as there was more than one ATF agent providing information to department components before the Feb. 4, 2011, letter was sent to Congress,” he said.
Mr. Grassley said his staff contacted on Feb. 2, 2011, an ATF agent who worked in the Phoenix field division and was familiar with the operation. He said conversation centered on the agent’s recollection of how Fast and Furious was executed, and his recollection confirmed accusations his investigators had learned from other ATF agents.
He said the memo went quickly through the ATF chain of command, ending up on the desks of Phoenix Special Agent in Charge William Newell and William McMahon, deputy assistant director for field operations. He said an email chain attaching the memo also was sent to Mark Chait, assistant director of field operations at ATF headquarters by the afternoon of Feb. 3.
Mr. Grassley said the possibility exists that Justice Department officials were aware of the memo on Feb. 3 and still sent the erroneous denial letter on Feb. 4. He also said it was unclear if the “deliberative” materials about the Feb. 4 letter constituted a complete set of all relevant documents or whether other documents may have been withheld.
He told Mr. Holder he wanted answers to his inquiries by July 17.