‘Calm down’ about Fast and Furious gun sting, ATF acting director says

October 5, 2011

The new acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced a major shake-up of his agency Wednesday and urged Washington insiders to “calm down” about the latest revelations surrounding a controversial ATF gun operation.

B. Todd Jones said calm is needed as he begins rebuilding the beleaguered agency, including shuffling top personnel. He made his comments as his boss, Attorney General Eric J. Holder Jr., came under fire this week from Republican lawmakers, with one calling for a special counsel to investigate Holder’s role in the Fast and Furious gun-trafficking operation.

Fast and Furious, a Phoenix gun sting that began in 2009, allowed small-time straw purchasers to pass firearms to middlemen, who then trafficked the guns to Mexico. The fury over the tactics, which resulted in more than 2,000 illegally purchased firearms hitting the streets, has led to the reassignment of the ATF’s former acting director and others, and the resignation of the U.S. attorney in Arizona.

On Tuesday, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked President Obama to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether Holder told the truth to Congress at a hearing on May 3 about Fast and Furious.

Smith made his request a day after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released new documents from the Justice Department that he said indicate that Holder was told about Fast and Furious as early as July 2010, although he told Congress in May that he had just learned about it.

A copy of a weekly report, obtained Monday by The Washington Post, was sent to Holder on July 5, 2010, from Michael F. Walther, the director of the National Drug Intelligence Center. A paragraph notes a Phoenix investigation called “Operation Fast and the Furious,” which involved a trafficking ring with straw buyers responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug cartels. The report said the group had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, suspected of providing $1 million for the purchase of guns.

The document did not explain that the ATF was in effect watching this happen without immediately trying to intervene, the issue at the heart of the controversy.

On Oct. 18, 2010, another weekly report, this one from Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, was sent to Holder noting “Phoenix-based Operation Fast and Furious.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Holder became aware of the questionable tactics of allowing the guns to walk — or move without ATF interdiction — only when ATF agents first flagged them publicly in March. Holder then asked the agency’s inspector general to conduct an investigation, which is ongoing.

But Issa said the documents show that Holder was not being truthful during the May 3 congressional hearing.

At the hearing, Issa asked Holder: “When did you first know about the program officially, I believe, called Fast and Furious?”

Holder answered: “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.”

Schmaler said Holder was referring to when he first learned of the operation’s tactics. She added that of the documents Holder had seen earlier, “not a single one of these reports referenced the controversial tactics that allowed guns to cross the border, and in fact, one example provided to Congress consisted of a single sentence referencing a Phoenix-based operation.”

“None of the handful of entries in 2010 regarding the Fast and Furious suggested there was anything amiss with that investigation requiring leadership to take corrective action or commit to memory this particular operation prior to the disturbing claims raised by ATF agents in the early part of 2011,” Schmaler said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who is conducting the joint investigation of Fast and Furious along with Issa, released a statement Wednesday night questioning the timing of the ATF shuffle in the same week that lawmakers released the documents pertaining to Holder.

“Rearranging the chairs on the deck won’t make Fast and Furious go away,” Grassley said. “There is a lot of effort at the Justice Department to spin the fact that the Attorney General was less than candid before the House Judiciary Committee, and what better way to make that go away than a bureaucratic shuffle.”

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horwitzs@washpost.com

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department, after 30 years at the paper where she has been an investigative reporter and covered federal law enforcement, crime, education and social services.
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