White House Avoids Comment on Botched ATF ‘Project Gunrunner’ Operation, Won’t Say If President Is Aware of It

By Fred Lucas | March 8, 2011 | 4:01 AM EST

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, March, 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – The White House on Monday refused comment on a brewing controversy over a botched sting operation in which the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed guns to flow to smugglers in the U.S. in an effort to trace the weapons to Mexico.

Some of the guns reportedly ended up at crimes scenes in Mexico, including those where U.S. law enforcement agents were killed.

Late last week, Attorney General Eric Holder asked the Justice Department's inspector general to probe “Project Gunrunner,” which allowed criminals to obtain guns as a means of tracking their flow to Mexican drug cartels. Two of those weapons were recovered at a firefight that killed U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry last December in southeastern Arizona.

The ATF has appointed a panel to review the operation, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is seeking more information on the matter as well.

CBS reporter Chip Reid on Monday asked if the White House had any comment on the matter.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took questions on the ATF probe, but said only that the president is concerned about the flow of guns into Mexico. He did not say whether the president was aware of the Project Gunrunner controversy.

“Obviously, as the president pointed out when he spoke here with President Calderón, we take the issue of the flow of guns south very seriously, as we do the issue of the flow of drugs north, and – but beyond that I don’t have any comments,” Carney said.

Reid followed, “Is he [Obama] aware of the specific allegation that – ”

Carney answered, “I don’t know.”

Reid continued his question, “Hundreds of guns went into Mexico with the knowledge of ATF?”

“I don’t know, Chip,” Carney said.

Another reporter later asked, “Would he condone an ATF plan that uses – in effect, uses guns as bait?”

Carney answered, “I just don’t have anything for you on that except to point you to his statements about his concerns, our concerns about the flow of guns south. But this – for other questions about this story I would point you to the Department of Justice.”

According to the ATF, which falls under the Justice Department, Project Gunrunner was established "to stem the flow of firearms into Mexico and thereby deprive the narcotics cartels of weapons." An ATF fact sheet states, "Firearms tracing helps identify firearms straw purchasers, the traffickers, trafficking networks and patterns, thus allowing law enforcement to target and dismantle the infrastructure supplying firearms to the DTOs (drug-trafficking organizations) in Mexico."

In a joint news conference last week with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, President Barack Obama did not address the particular matter regarding the ATF sting, but he did talk about the need to stop the flow of U.S. guns into Mexico.

“Well, the Second Amendment in this country is part of our Constitution, and the president of the United States is bound by our Constitution,” Obama said. “So I believe in the Second Amendment. It does provide for Americans the right to bear arms for their protection, for their safety, for hunting, for a wide range of uses.

“That does not mean that we cannot constrain gun-runners from shipping guns into Mexico. And so we believe that we can shape an enforcement strategy that slows the flow of guns into Mexico, while at the same time preserving our Constitution,” the president added.

Obama later added, “One of the things that I think that President Calderon and I have discussed is how we can strengthen border security on both sides, so that drugs flowing north or guns and cash flowing south – that we are able at all these points to intervene, interdict in a way that doesn’t ... slow the commerce and trade that is so important between our two countries.”

In the letter to Grassley last Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said Holder asked the DOJ inspector general’s office to evaluate the concerns raised about ATF’s investigative actions and determine whether further investigation by the IG is needed.

Grassley had called on the Justice Department to provide his office with information, citing whistleblowers who have come forward on the matter.

“These agents were motivated to come forward after federal authorities recovered two of the Operation Fast and Furious guns at the scene where a Customs and Border Patrol Agent named Brian Terry was killed,” Grassley’s letter said.

“In response to my [previous] letter, the Department of Justice (DOJ) denied that ATF would ever knowingly allow weapons to fall into the hands of criminals, or let firearms ‘walk’ in an operation,” Grassley’s letter to Holder said. “On February 9, I wrote to DOJ and attached documents that supported the whistleblower allegations about the guns found at the scene of Agent Terry’s death.

“My office continues to receive mounting evidence in support of the whistleblower

allegations,” Grassley continued.

The Grassley letter cited an ATF supervisor who was dismissive of the concerns of the other agents.

The Grassley letter included documents, including an e-mail from ATF Supervisor David Voth sent on March 12, 2010 that said, “If you don’t think this is fun, you’re in the wrong line of work— period! This is the pinnacle of domestic U.S. law enforcement techniques. After this the toolbox is empty. Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers and you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day.”