Justice Dept. Vague on When Holder First Learned About Operation Fast and Furious

August 18, 2011 - 6:07 PM

Barrett .50 rifle seized in Mexico

Barrett .50 caliber rifles, like this one held by Mexican Gen. Antonio Erasto Monsivais in a government warehouse for seized weapons in Mexico City, were among the firearms made available in Operation Fast and Furious. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The Justice Department has given a vague response to a query by congressional investigators about when Attorney General Eric Holder first learned about a botched gun running sting operation along the southwest border

In a letter answering a questionnaire about “Operation Fast and Furious,” the department replied only that concerns emerged “earlier this year.” It also mentioned two occasions when Holder testified on the matter to congressional committees, both already on the record.

In their questionnaire addressed to Holder, investigators led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked when department officials including Holder himself had first become aware of the program.

“When and how did you [Holder] first learn about Operation Fast and Furious or the strategy of ‘allow[ing] the transfer of firearms to continue to take place in order to further the investigation?’” they asked.

The Justice Department response, provided by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich on July 22, did not include an exact date – or even an approximate one – for Holder first having learned about the operation.

“The concerns about Operation Fast and Furious first became evident earlier this year,” it said.

“After learning of these concerns, the Attorney General referred the matter to the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General for review, as was made clear in the Attorney General’s testimony on March 10, 2011 before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and also in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on May 3, 2011.”

Testifying before the Senate Appropriation commerce and justice subcommittee in March, Holder said, “I’ve also made clear to people in the department that letting guns walk – I guess that’s the term that the people use – that letting guns walk is not something that is acceptable.”

Before the House Judiciary Committee in May, Holder was asked when he first learned about the operation. He replied, “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.”

Operation Fast and Furious was first reported by various media outlets in February.

In an initiative led by the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and also involving the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, straw purchasers were allowed to buy 1,418 guns to be transported to Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The ATF subsequently only recovered 274 of the firearms, according to the Justice Department.

The operation came to a halt in December after two guns that had been transferred to Mexico were found at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

According to Issa and Grassley, there were also 11 instances of Fast and Furious guns being recovered in the U.S. in connection with violent crimes.

Issa, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained in a letter Tuesday that “many of the [Justice Department] answers were non-responsive.”

‘Allowing the transfer of arms to continue’

Also raising the investigators’ concerns was the existence of an apparent strategy of “allow[ing] the transfer of firearms to continue to take place” in order to further investigations.

An ATF briefing paper, dated Jan. 8, 2010 said, “Currently our strategy is to allow the transfer of firearms to continue to take place, albeit at a much slower pace, in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of co-conspirators who would continue to operate and illegally traffic firearms to Mexican DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] which are perpetrating armed violence along the Southwest Border.”

In their questionnaire, the lawmakers asked, “Who first suggested the methods of investigation employed in Operation Fast and Furious, specifically the strategy of ‘allow[ing] the transfer of firearms to continue to take place in order to further the investigation?’”

The Justice Department said the phrase had been misconstrued by the congressional investigators.

“The phrase ‘to allow the transfer of firearms to continue’ should not be construed to suggest that ATF condoned or sanctioned the suspected firearms trafficking activity,” the department explained. “Rather, ATF has made clear that its strategy was to gather sufficient evidence to build a case against federal firearms violators.”

The department cited ATF order 3310.4(b), which deals with interdicting guns. One portion of that order says, “immediate intervention may not be needed or desirable, and the special agent my choose to allow the transfer of firearms to take place in order to further an investigation and allow for identification of additional co-conspirators who would have continued to operate and illegally traffic firearms in the future, potentially producing more armed crime.”

Another question from the congressional investigators asked, “Which officials at ATF and DOJ are responsible for authorizing the strategy of ‘allow[ing] the transfer of firearms to continue to take place in order to further the investigation?’”

The Justice Department provided a similar answer, but avoided saying specifically who authorized the operation.

“As noted, the phrase ‘to allow the transfer of firearms to continue’ should not be construed to suggest that ATF condoned or sanctioned the suspected firearms trafficking activity,” it stated.

“Rather, at the time the briefing paper being quoted was prepared in or about January 2010, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona, in conjunction with ATF’s Phoenix Field Division, evaluated all facts and information that had been compiled in the case to that point and concluded that sufficient evidence to permit the prosecution and conviction of targeted individuals did not exist.”

The operation began in November 2009, the Justice Department said, and acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson became aware of the operation the following month, on Dec. 9.

The questionnaire also asked when Holder and Melson first spoke about Operation Fast and Furious.

“We believe that the first direct discussion of Operation Fast and Furious between Acting Director Melson and the Attorney General occurred in or about late April 2011 as part of an agenda item in a briefing for the Attorney General by the leaders of the Department of Justice’s law enforcement components,” the Justice response said.