(CNSNews.com) – A senior Senate Republican has accused the Justice Department of a “cover-up” by limiting information to Congress about a botched gun running program along the southwest border.
“I think they’re trying to cover up now by not giving us all the information that we want,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNSNews.com.
“In regard to criminality, this is quite obvious there is criminal activity when our own government suggests our own laws ought to be broken,” he said. “Isn’t it just as criminal if we do that, as [it would be] if Chuck Grassley did it as a private citizen?”
Grassley is investigating a gun running operation led by the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and also involving the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI.
“Operation Fast and Furious,” saw federal law enforcement officials knowingly allow guns to be sold to straw purchasers for the purpose of tracing the firearms, which included AK 47s assault rifles, to Mexican drug trafficking gangs.
The initiative began in September 2009, but was halted after two of the weapons were found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder in December 2010. Although Operation Fast and Furious ended with the indictment of 20 straw purchasers, no-one from the drug cartels – the primary target of the program – was brought to justice.
The Justice Department assigned the Office of Inspector General to conduct an internal investigation into the affair.
Grassley told CNSNews.com that the Justice Department seemingly wanted to put an end to the matter by firing the ATF’s acting director, Kenneth Melson. However, Melson told congressional staff investigators on July 4 that senior Justice officials had discouraged ATF officials from discussing the matter with Congress and even with other ATF staff.
“We were thinking in terms that they were going to fire Melson,” Grassley said. “And I simply said that if they think letting one guy like that go is the solution to it, it can’t be, because we know that there’s a lot more people involved than Melson.”
“In fact, maybe after the questioning of Melson, we might find him less involved than a lot of other people,” he added
A Justice Department spokesperson did not respond to inquiries by phone or email over the past two weeks.
Grassley is working closely on the matter with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which will hold a second hearing on the matter next Tuesday. Both lawmakers have complained about the slow document production, excessive redaction in those documents that are produced, and alleged misinformation from the Justice Department.
On July 6, shortly after the Melson testimony was reported, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich sent a letter to Issa and Grassley denying any cover-up.
“Contrary to the suggestion in your letter, the Department of Justice has in no way sought to limit the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s appropriate access to information concerning Operation Fast and Furious,” Weich wrote.
“Rather, like you, the Department is deeply interested in understanding the facts surrounding Operation Fast and Furious. This is why the Attorney General several months ago asked the Department’s Inspector General to look into concerns raised about this operation and why the Department has and will continue to cooperate with that ongoing independent inquiry.”
When Grassley first inquired about the matter, in a Jan. 27 letter, Weich denied that the ATF had ever allowed guns to be sold and taken across the border.
“[T]he allegation described in your January 27 letter – that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them to Mexico – is false,” Weich wrote to Grassley in a Feb. 4 response.
During a hearing of the House oversight panel in June Issa pressed Weich about that letter. Weich replied, “Everything that we say is true to the best of our knowledge at the time we say it. As more facts come out, obviously our understanding of the situation is enhanced.”
After the first hearing last month CNSNews.com asked Issa whether he would say that the Justice Department had been covering up in the face of the congressional probe. “Yes I would,” Issa said, pointing both to Weich’s Feb. 4 letter to Grassley and the level of redaction of documents.
“There are two kinds of cover ups,” Issa said on June 17. “There is one in which you lie to people in order to mislead them. That letter represents that type of cover-up. There’s also the one in which you delay and deny in an attempt to simply not have the facts come out.
“Clearly they’ve done that with Sen. Grassley, first, and then with our committee, because some of the things that they redacted, we have the unredacted versions from whistleblowers,” he continued. “We believe they did excess redacting, which again is denying us that which would be reasonable to deliver us. We’re hoping that that’s changed. We hope that what was said yesterday, there is in fact a change in the administration’s view in order to not be embarrassed.”
In a July 18 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Issa and Grassley charged that the Justice Department had prevented Melson from communicating with Congress and even with his own staff.
The letter quoted Melson as telling congressional staff investigators that after Grassley’s initial inquiry into the matter, the ATF had wanted to cooperate with Congress.
The letter to Holder quoted Melson as telling the investigators, “[A]fter receiving [Senator Grassley’s initial] letter, our first instinct and intuition was to directly march over to Senator Grassley’s office and brief him on what Fast and Furious was for purposes of explaining the concept and the role it played and how it got there, and where ATF was going in it. And we expressed that desire to the [Deputy Attorney General’s] office.”
“I sat in the [the office of the Associate Deputy Attorney General with responsibility for ATF] one day when they were writing the letter to Senator Grassley about him being only a ranking member and not the chair of the committee,” Melson was further quoted a saying. “I sat there across the desk from him, as I recall, and said, this is really just poking [Senator Grassley] in the eye. What’s the sense of doing this? Even if you say you can’t give it to him, he’s going to get it through the back door anyway, why are we aggravating the situation?”
The letter goes on to quote Melson as saying, “Part of the problem, and one of the things that frustrates me was that I have not been allowed to communicate to the troops about anything. … Then after we wanted to do several things to talk to our people about what this case was about, and you know, where we were going and the fact that we are cooperating as much as we could with the committee and with the Department, but we were restrained from doing that.”