Border operation handled by ATF
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Another senior Republican has questions about the Fast and Furious undercover weapons investigation on the U.S.-Mexico border, demanding that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. immediately brief his office regarding the “scope and details of any past or present ATF gun-walking programs” in Texas.
Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former Texas attorney general, told Mr. Holder in a letter Thursday that the Arizona-based operation, which he called “ill-advised,” had “tragic consequences” in that state and that his Texas constituents deserved “a full accounting.”
“As you are aware, recent congressional investigations have revealed the existence of a controversial ‘gun-walking’ program operated by the ATF in Phoenix, Arizona,” he wrote. “As a part of that program, known as ‘Operation Fast and Furious,’ ATF agents instructed federally-licensed firearms dealers to illegally sell more than 1,000 weapons to straw purchasers working for drug cartels in Mexico.
“These ATF agents were also ordered by their superiors to ignore well-established practice and refrain from interdicting these weapons before they flowed into the hands of Mexican drug cartels,” he wrote. “Sadly, this ill-advised program had tragic consequences, with these ‘walked’ weapons showing up at the scene of multiple violent crimes - including the murder of United States Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry” along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Mr. Cornyn, in the letter, said the Justice Department had been “less than forthcoming” during congressional investigations into the operation, noting that Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich initially denied to Congress accusations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico.
He also noted that Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson told congressional investigators the agency’s senior leadership would have preferred to cooperate more with the congressional investigation of the operation, but Justice Department officials directed ATF not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has noted that Mr. Holder asked the department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter.
She said Justice continues to work with its law enforcement counterparts in the U.S. and Mexico to stem the flow of weapons, cash and drugs across the border, adding that the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico has been a priority for both the Obama administration and the Justice Department.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, have sought information on the Fast and Furious program for several months.
Two AK-47 assault rifles were found at the site of the Terry shooting, 10 miles from the Mexico border near Nogales, Ariz., and later were traced back to a straw buyer who had purchased the weapons as part of the undercover investigation.
Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa have said that Fast and Furious allowed “approximately 2,000 heavy-duty assault type firearms to be illegally trafficked” and that “hundreds of these weapons have already been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.”
Under the operation, several ATF agents testified they were ordered by their supervisors to “stand down” from surveillance operations and let the straw buyers’ weapons travel across the border into Mexico.
The operation was halted in January, shortly after the Dec. 15 Terry killing.