At the Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearings on the Department of Justice yesterday, Senator Chuck Grassley read a prepared statement. I have omitted the parts not dealing with ATF and Operation Gunrunner.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding today’s oversight hearing. It has been over a year since this committee last held an oversight hearing with the Attorney General so there is much ground to cover. In that intervening year, many developments at the Justice Department have raised serious questions about whether the department is putting politics before the interest of the American people. These are serious issues and I plan to ask a number of questions about why the department has applied the law inconsistently in certain areas, such as prosecuting national security leaks, and whether the department has provided apparently false information in response to congressional inquiries.
I am extremely disappointed in the Justice Department’s response to my inquiry into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). I sent a letter to the ATF on January 27, 2011, seeking a response to allegations I received from whistleblowers that the ATF was allowing guns to be illegally smuggled to Mexico. Rather than allowing the ATF to respond to my letter, on February 4, 2011, I received a letter from the department which claimed the whistleblower allegations were “false” and that “ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.” I personally expressed my concern to the Attorney General about the accuracy of the department’s replies to my inquiries in our telephone conversation on Monday, May 2.
I was stunned that just a few hours after our conversation, the department sent another letter repeating the denial in slightly different words. According to Monday’s letter, “ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious did not knowingly permit straw buyers to take guns into Mexico.” It is particularly disturbing that the department would renew its denial at this late date in light of the growing evidence that the department’s claims are patently false.
Documents and witness testimony from employees at ATF show that the ATF knowingly allowed the sale of semi-automatic weapons to many straw purchasers, even after the ATF knew that guns they previously purchased were recovered in Mexico. I have in my possession a document which the ATF specifically requested be drawn up on March 29 of this year, apparently in response to this controversy. This document shows that just 15 defendants indicted on January 25 were responsible for purchasing one thousand, three hundred and eighteen (1,318) guns from Arizona dealers after being identified as targets in the ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious investigation. Of those guns, only 250 have been recovered in the United States. And that’s just from these fifteen straw buyers—the ATF enabled this pattern to recur many more times through additional buyers and guns. At the very least, this means that over 1,000 semi-automatic weapons are on the street because the ATF decided to wait and watch rather than getting in the way of the criminals’ plans.
The ATF also clearly knew that these guns were being exported south of the border to Mexico. According to internal ATF correspondence, as of June 15, 2010, the ATF was aware that at least 179 guns—traced back to sales which the ATF allowed to occur—had been recovered in crimes in Mexico.
While it appears that the ATF did make an effort to tally the number of the guns they allowed to walk, the reality is that those recovered represent just a small percentage of the total number of these guns the ATF has lost track of. Worst of all, on December 15, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in an incident at the border where two of these weapons that the ATF knowingly allowed to be sold to criminals were found at the crime scene. At best, the ATF was careless in authorizing the sale of thousands of guns to straw purchasers; at worst our own government knowingly participated in arming criminals, drug cartels, and those who later killed federal agents.
Aside from categorical denials that are clearly contradicted by the evidence, I have received absolutely zero substantive information from the department on this issue. On the contrary, the Department of Justice has intervened in every inquiry I have made with other agencies under the department and instructed them that the Justice Department alone is allowed to respond. The actions of the Department have only served to impede and frustrate this investigation. In fact, I have provided more information to the Attorney General than he has provided to me.
After ten letters to the department or the ATF, I have received five responses—two which provided false information, one which provided no information, one which sought to deter me from seeking information from other sources, and one which partially responded to my concern about attempts to prevent communications between whistleblowers and Congress.
Although the ATF is a separate entity, it has done these things under the Attorney General’s watch. The witnesses that were interviewed under subpoenas from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have made clear that Acting Director Melson was intimately involved in Operation Fast and Furious, lauding it as an extremely successful operation. However, even more troubling is that it is clear that individuals at the Justice Department were involved in certain aspects of Operation Fast and Furious.
The evidence that I and Congressman Issa have gathered is clear—the ATF sanctioned the sale of guns to straw purchasers that were then used in crimes on both sides of the Southwest border. Officials at both the Department and ATF knew of and approved the operation. Now, the Attorney General argues that this congressional investigation threatens the ongoing criminal prosecution of the straw purchasers. Yet, the department and the ATF chose to wait and watch those same straw purchasers do business for over a year before charging them with any of the criminal conduct. It was only after the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry that the straw purchasers were finally charged. I take exception to the notion that Congress must hold off on an investigation on the grounds that discovering the truth could hinder prosecutions. The goal of a trial is a search for the truth. The department is required to turn over any exculpatory evidence to criminal defense attorneys in any event. If our system of justice works the way it should, then the department cannot ultimately prevent the truth from coming to light. Congress should not allow its fact finding efforts to be stonewalled just because the details might be embarrassing to certain officials in the Justice Department.
Further, the department has tried to avoid questions by referring to the Acting Inspector General’s investigation. That inquiry does not preclude an independent congressional investigation. Moreover, it has become clear that conduct by attorneys at the U.S. Attorney’s office has been called into question. As you know, that is a matter that the Inspector General is statutorily precluded from investigating. So, unless the Attorney General has requested an independent review by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the questionable conduct by department attorneys may go unchecked.
The conduct in question by both the ATF and the department is serious. It may have led to the death of at least one federal agent and countless other crimes in the U.S. and Mexico. The department should not stonewall Congress or seek to intimidate whistleblowers or other potential witnesses in congressional proceedings. This cannot simply be swept under the rug. I plan to continue my work with the help of Congressman Issa and get to the bottom of who signed off on this operation that failed so tragically.
I would also note that in the video from the hearings that I have seen of Attorney General Eric Holder testifying you will see over his left shoulder Asst. AG Ron Weich. Weich is the one who has continually sent the kiss-off letters to Senator Grassley.