House Committee to Seek More Info on White House Links to Gunrunner Operation

By Fred Lucas | July 28, 2011 | 5:54 PM EDT

A man is reflected in a bullet riddled window of a gym in Tijuana, Mexico, Monday Feb. 28, 2011. According to police at the scene, a man was shot to death by unknown gunmen inside the gym while he was working out. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

( – Congressional investigators plan to seek information from the White House National Security Council staff regarding communications about the botched gunrunning sting known as Operation Fast and Furious, which may have a publicized connection to the White House.

“Very clearly, part of the problem is there has been political interference at the highest level,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told during a conference call Wednesday. “We are going to be asking the National Security Council what occurred.”

On Tuesday, the Oversight Committee held a hearing on Operation Fast and Furious, in which the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed about 2,000 guns to flow to Mexico, through straw purchasers, with the intent of tracing the weapons to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

At the hearing, a top ATF official, William Newell, took questions about an e-mail he sent to White House staffer Kevin O’Reilly.

The operation, which began in September 2009, was halted in December 2010 after two of the guns from the operation were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. With hundreds of guns still unaccounted for, the Justice Department ended the investigation with the indictment of 20 straw purchasers on minor charges.

Newell, the former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field office – now the ATF’s Attaché to Mexico – told the Oversight Committee Tuesday that he communicated with O’Reilly in the fall of 2010. A Sept. 3, 2010 e-mail from Newell to O’Reilly, obtained by the House committee, begins, “You didn’t get this from me.”

As members asked why he informed O’Reilly of this case, Newell said the two are friends. He went on to say the e-mail message “wasn’t improper. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time. He asked me for information.”

Issa said, “It’s amazing” that Newell just happens to have a good friend in the White House.

“This e-mail by the way was not provided to us by the Justice Department. It was given to us by a whistleblower,” Issa added. “He was very quick to answer, he was just a friend. But, very clearly, this is the kind of thing we are discovering. One of the reasons we do these hearings is to inform the public, but also motivate the public. We are finding more good people both in and out of law enforcement.”

The Los Angeles Times obtained additional e-mails beyond what was released at the Tuesday hearing. A total of five messages were sent to and from O’Reilly and Newell from Sept. 1-3, 2010. 

The email exchange commenced when O’Reilly asked Newell, “Any good news pts [points] for a meeting w/Mx [Mexican] Embassy coming out of the Phoenix GRIT [Gun Runner Impact Team]?” Newell responded about gun running investigations but did not mention Operation Fast and Furious in the exchange between O’Reilly and Newell, said the emails published on the newspaper’s website Thursday.

Asked further about getting testimony from O’Reilly or others in the NSC, Issa said the committee will make every effort.

“Try yes,” Issa said. “One of things that have made this a slow investigation is that we’re getting no cooperation. Even under subpoena we’re going through that.”

Attorney General Eric Holder told the House Judiciary Committee in May that he only knew about the case in the last few weeks. Meanwhile, the White House has not answered questions as to when President Barack Obama first became aware of the operation.

The highest ranking Obama administration official that the committee knows was aware of the operation early on was Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general for the criminal division at the Justice Department. That is because his office approved wiretaps for this operation in spring 2010. Breuer will be called to testify to the committee, Issa said.

“We not only want to stop agents who think this is a good idea – and they are few and far between,” Issa said in the conference call. “We also want to stop the people who funded, authorized, coordinated and helped with the cover-up.”