Issa aides deny he raised no objection when briefed on ATF gun-trafficking program last year

Correction: An earlier version of this article reporting accounts from sources that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was briefed on a controversial anti-gun-trafficking operation last year and did not express any opposition carried a headline that did not reflect that those accounts were disputed by an Issa spokesman. This version has been corrected.

A chief Republican critic of a controversial U.S. anti-gun-trafficking operation was briefed on ATF’s “Fast and Furious” program last year and did not express any opposition, sources familiar with the classified briefing said Tuesday.

Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), who has repeatedly called for top Justice Department officials to be held accountable for the now-defunct operation, was given highly specific information about it at an April 2010 briefing, the sources said. Members of his staff also attended the session, which Issa and two other Republican congressmen had requested.

Fast and Furious targeted Mexican gun traffickers but was linked to the killing of a U.S. law enforcement officer. Republicans in Congress have criticized the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives over its handling of the operation, with Issa calling it “felony-stupid bad judgment” during a hearing last week in which he grilled a Justice Department official.

At the briefing last year, bureau officials laid out for Issa and other members of Congress from both parties details of several ATF investigations, including Fast and Furious, the sources said. For that program, the briefing covered how many guns had been bought by “straw purchasers,’’ the types of guns and how much money had been spent, said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the briefing was not public.

“All of the things [Issa] has been screaming about, he was briefed on,’’ said one source familiar with the session.

Frederick R. Hill, a spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs, acknowledged on Tuesday that an ATF briefing on “weapons smuggling by criminal cartels” took place in April 2010 but declined to specify what Issa or his staff were told.

He accused “opponents” of the committee’s investigation of the gun-trafficking operation of “incredulously trying to assert that Obama administration political appointees at the Justice Department were ignorant — yet Congress was in the know on the details of Operation Fast and Furious.’’

“This irresponsible and false accusation is indicative of a Justice Department bereft of leadership and rattled by the revelations of its own misconduct,’’ Hill added.

Justice Department officials have said the operation was approved by ATF’s Phoenix field office and the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix. The department’s inspector general is investigating allegations that Justice and ATF allowed nearly 2,500 guns to flow illegally into Mexico as part of the program.

ATF is in the midst of uncertainty about its leadership. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. met on Tuesday with Andrew Traver, President Obama’s nominee to head the bureau. Traver’s nomination has stalled in the Senate, and law enforcement and other sources said this week that ATF’s interim leadership could be changed in response to pressure over the Fast and Furious controversy.

But sources said Tuesday that the acting director, Kenneth E. Melson, has not indicated any plans to resign. One source described morale at the troubled agency as poor, with officials and agents uncertain about what will happen next.

Melson’s stewardship of ATF has come under fire over the Phoenix-based Fast and Furious operation. Facing pressure to snag bigger players in trafficking organizations that smuggle weapons to Mexico, the bureau began the campaign in November 2009.

For nearly a year, agents tracked guns they suspected might end up in the hands of Mexican cartels. But several ATF agents testified before Issa’s committee last week that they were ordered not to stop people they suspected had illegal guns. Two of the AK-47s recovered at the scene of the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian A. Terry in December were bought in Fast and Furious.

Issa, along with Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), has been pushing to learn whether senior Justice officials authorized the program. On Tuesday, Issa told Fox News that Melson should lose his job and that senior officials should be “held accountable.’’

But Issa raised no objections to the program at the April 2010 briefing, sources said. They said Issa and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and John L. Mica (R-Fla.) had written a letter to Melson in February seeking a briefing about ATF’s efforts to combat gun- and drug-related violence along the Mexican border.

Jerry Markon is a political accountability reporter for the Post’s National Desk, focusing on short-term investigative stories about the Affordable Care Act, lobbying and other topics. He also serves as lead Web writer for major breaking national news.
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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