DOJ deflects Gunrunner, Fast and Furious blame to local officials

Matthew Boyle | Investigative Reporter

President Obama’s Justice Department is trying to deflect responsibility over decisions in the Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious investigations, which are being spearheaded by House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican. Last Wednesday, Issa released new Project Gunrunner documents, including an approved wiretap application bearing Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer’s name. Though Breuer didn’t sign it, his Deputy Assistant Attorney General (DAAG), Kenneth Blanc, did.

Now the DOJ says Blanc’s signature and Breuer’s name doesn’t imply any federal-level responsibility. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler told The Daily Caller that the Obama administration’s DOJ officials routinely approve thousands of wiretap applications without knowing the specifics of the cases they’re signing off on.

“The review process for wiretap applications is a narrow assessment of whether a legal basis exists to support a surveillance request that ultimately goes before a judge for decision,” Schmaler said in an email. “These reviews are not approval of the underlying investigations or operations.”

House Oversight Committee spokesman Frederick Hill told TheDC he thinks it’s disturbing that the DOJ is routinely approving wiretap applications like this one. “The assertion that the Justice Department has a robo-signing process for wiretap applications is a deeply troubling defense,” Hill said in an email. “Applications for wiretaps generally include detailed descriptions of law enforcement activities, sworn statements and explanations for why invasive wiretaps are crucial to an investigation. Claiming ignorance on an operation where wiretaps were approved by high level officials raises even more concerns about irresponsible and reckless decisions by Justice officials that contributed to the deaths of two federal agents.”

Former federal prosecutor and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Center for Law and Counterterrorism co-chair Andrew McCarthy told TheDC Schmaler is right in that Justice Department officials don’t have time to review facts and details of every wiretap application they sign. But, McCarthy said, that doesn’t absolve top officials of responsibility when something goes awry.

“Nobody would expect the Deputy Attorney General to know the details like the prosecutor on the case, but if your name is on something and it’s a screw-up, you’re going to end up being responsible for it not in the sense that anyone expects you to know all the facts, but if you’ve been relying on someone who isn’t doing a good job to vet these things, then that is your responsibility,” McCarthy said. “The reason that Congress put this requirement in the statute is because they wanted Justice Department oversight on the district offices because wiretaps are so invasive.”

Schmaler said the applications still have to go before a judge for final approval. But, Schmaler shifts any DOJ responsibility down the chain to local officials, even though Obama’s politically appointed U.S. attorney Dennis Burke, who oversees the U.S. Attorney’s Arizona District, has made decisions on the gun “walking” programs, along with several local officials. “As the department has stated, the Fast and Furious operation was approved by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona and the ATF Phoenix Field Office,” Schmaler told TheDC. “The investigation was subsequently approved by the multi-agency Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Program.”

The approved wiretap application bearing Breuer’s name and Blanc’s signature was one of three documents Issa released Wednesday. It’s a part of investigations he and Grassley conducting on the Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious programs from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Through Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious, ATF essentially allowed American guns to be “walked,” or trafficked via “straw purchasers,” into Mexico. The guns then ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels and, apparently, the programs’ ultimate goal was to track the larger weapons trafficking market.

Another twist in the storyline is that two dead Border Patrol agents were likely shot with weapons ATF allowed into Mexican drug cartels’ hands. Justice officials were tracking two AK47s found at the scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s death. Federal officials charged three Mexican nationals with Terry’s murder late last week, but Issa said the good news doesn’t lift Attorney General Eric Holder and the rest of the DOJ off the hook.

“The Justice Department hasn’t said how and why guns purportedly being tracked and monitored by federal law enforcement officials as part of Operation Fast and Furious ended up in the hands of Agent Terry’s killers,” Issa said in a statement. “It angers me to think that this death might not have occurred had it not been for reckless decisions made by officials at the Department of Justice who authorized and supported an operation that knowingly put guns in the hands of criminals. For these officials to imagine that this operation would result in anything other than a tragic outcome was naive and negligent.”

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