Issa: DOJ Covering Up on Mexican Gun-Running Scandal

Fred Lucas | June 17, 2011 | 5:49pm EDT
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Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

( - House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) told in an interview that he believes the Justice Department is covering up information relevant to a congressional investigation of an operation in which the department knowingly allowed intermediaries of Mexican drug cartels to purchase guns at licensed firearms dealers in the United States and then get away without being arrested or the guns being retrieved.

Last December, two of those guns ended up at the scene of the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent who was killed by alleged agents of the Mexican drug cartels.

Issa pointed to two things he says indicates a Justice Department cover up. First, he cites a letter that Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, head of the Justice Department’s office of legislative affairs, sent to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 4, 2011. Issa characterizes that letter as a “lie.”

Secondly, Issa says the Justice Department made excessive and unjustifiable redactions in documents it provided to his committee.

Additionally, Issa says he does not believe Attorney General Eric Holder testified accurately in the Judiciary Committee on May 3, when he told Issa (who also serves on that committee) that he had only learned of the gun-running operation—called “Operation Fast and Furious"--a few weeks before that.

In this operation, conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the government knowingly allowed about 2,000 guns, including AK 47s, to be purchased by people in Arizona who the ATF believed were operating as intermediaries for Mexican drug cartels. The intent of the investigation was not to stop the gun purchases, or to take the guns away from the buyers after they had purchased them, but to let guns go to the cartels so the U.S. could trace and uncover the entirety of major gun-smuggling organizations.

The operation began in 2009 and ended in early 2011 with the indictment of 20 individuals on relatively minor charges for illegal gun purchases.

Before the operation was ended, however, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered by alleged drug cartel operatives in Arizona. Among the 20 individuals indicted as result of Operation Fast and Furious was Jaime Avila. As early as November 2009, federal authorities had had evidence of illegal gun purchases by Avila. Two AK-47s purchased by Avila—with the full knowledge of the ATF in the conduct of Operation Fast and Furious--were found at the scene of Agent Terry’s murder.

Agent Terry’s murder prompted ATF agents--who had warned their superiors of the risk of the Fast and Furious operation--to come forward as whistleblowers. That led to a congressional probe, led by Issa in the House and Sen. Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, in the Senate. asked Issa if he would say that the Justice Department has been covering up in the face of the congressional probe. “Yes I would,” said Issa, pointing to the DOJ letter to Sen. Grassley and the excess redaction of documents.

“There are two kinds of cover ups,” he said. “There is one in which you lie to people in order to mislead them. That letter represents that type of coverup. 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. 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 his Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Sen. Grassley, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, had denied that the Justice Department knowingly “sanctioned” the sale of  guns to people they believed were going to deliver them to Mexican drug cartels.

“At the outset, the 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. “ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”

At a hearing in Issa’s Oversight Committee on Wednesday, two ATF agents gave sworn testimony directly contradicting Weich’s letter.

“This is not a matter of some weapons that had gotten away from us or allowing a few to walk so that we could follow them to a much larger, more significant target,” ATF Special Agent John Dodson told the committee. “Allowing loads of weapons that we knew to be destined for criminals was the plan, this was the mandate.”

According to Issa, Justice Department documents secured by his committee also contradicted Weich’s letter.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Issa had a tense exchange with Weich about the truthfulness of the letter.

“You made a statement in that letter that you signed on the 4th that said: ‘ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico,” said Issa. “Who prepared that line in your letter? .. You signed it, who prepared it? Was it you?

“These letters are the product of the Justice Department,” said Issa.

“So your signature on that letter doesn't mean that you know it to be true, is that correct?” asked Issa.

“I take ultimate responsibility,” said Weich.

“OK. Isn't that statement false now with what you know?” asked Issa.

“Obviously there have been allegations that call into serious question that particular sentence,” said Issa.

“Weren't there documents that now have been provided and made public that let you know that that statement was false?” asked Issa.

“And that's why you're investigating and that's why we're investigating,” said Weich.

“I just take your agreement that those documents indicate that that statement that you signed that someone prepared for your signature were false,” said Issa.

“Congressman, I am not prepared to say that at this time,” said Weich. “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.”

Issa says the Justice Department letter was a lie.

“We were aggravated because that letter was a lie and he [Weich] wasn’t willing to admit it was a lie,” Issa told “Instead he said, as facts come out, as we learn more. No. That letter was written to say something. You don’t affirm something without fact check. They clearly did not fact check. Or they did fact check and told us something that they thought cleverly might not be a lie when in fact it was.”

Issa was frustrated that he could not get an answer from Weich about who provided the information that went into the letter.

“We said very accurately--the letter we received from Ronald Weich--who put the inaccurate statements in? What research was done?” said Issa. “Because it is effectively lying to Congress to send a letter that should be researched and thoughtful, signed by a high ranking appointee. It’s important that it should be accurate, and it wasn’t.”

On May 3, Issa questioned Attorney General Holder about Operation Fast and Furious when Holder appeared in the Judiciary Committee, asking Holder for the date on which he became aware of the operation. Holder said “probably” sometime in the last few weeks. Issa now says he believes Holder knew about the operation earlier than that.

“When did you first know about the program officially, I believe, called Fast and Furious? To the best of your knowledge, what date?” Issa asked Holder in the Judiciary Committee.

“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,” said Holder.

In that same Judiciary Committee hearing, Holder also told Issa he did not know who authorized the operation.

“We believe he [Holder] was aware of it much earlier than he said in his testimony and questioning before the Judiciary Committee,” Issa said. Issa later added, “Are we confident that Eric Holder knew it much earlier? Did he know it earlier than he testified? Absolutely.”

Issa told Thursday, “The president knew about it before Eric Holder, according to Eric Holder.”

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that President Barack Obama did not know about or authorize the operation.

“As the president has already said, he did not know about or authorize this operation,” said Carney, “but the Department of Justice has said repeatedly that fighting criminal activity along the southwest border including the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico has been and is a priority of this department.”

Issa says he does not think the president personally knew about the operation.

“I take the president completely at his word there; that this isn’t something that would ordinarily rise directly to the president,” Issa said. “Was it briefed to people in the White House? I’m sure it was. Did he know about it personally? Probably not. Now that he said it should be looked into, the clock has been ticking a long time and nothing has happened as far as their releasing any findings.”

The Justice Department’s Inspector General is investigating the matter.

Republican staffers for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a report this week that said the operation was “known and authorized at the highest levels of the Justice Department."

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