New Project Gunrunner documents peg top DOJ officials

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Three Project Gunrunner documents Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and House Oversight Committee chairman, released on Wednesday show high-ranking Justice Department officials were aware of Operation Fast and Furious and that there was a consistent administration policy that allowed American guns to be “walked” into Mexican drug cartels’ possession.

One of the documents shows Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer approved a wiretap application for suspects Operation Fast and Furious targeted in March 2010. The wiretap application process is lengthy and cumbersome, and often requires those applying to make strong case as to why they need it. So, Breuer would have been briefed in detail on Operation Fast and Furious before authorizing the wiretap.

Another document, a briefing paper from January 8, 2010, shows the administration’s step-by-step policy decisions and plans. The Phoenix Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), wrote that the “investigation has currently identified more than 20 individual connected straw purchasers,” or those who bought weapons, under ATF surveillance, with the intent to traffic them to Mexican drug cartels. The briefing paper shows that ATF’s policy was to allow this to happen. “Currently, our strategy is to allow the transfer of firearms to continue to take place, albeit at a much slower pace, in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators who would continue to operate and illegally traffic firearms to Mexican DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] which are perpetrating armed violence along the Southwest Border.”

The briefing paper also shows that the “straw purchasing group” made a “blitz” in weapons trafficking from late September to early December 2009.

The third document, an e-mail from Arizona-based U.S. Attorney Shelley Clemens to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official Richard Crocker and FBI official S. Annette Bartlett, shows that the Justice Department has begun scrambling to stop the gun “walking” practice since Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, launched investigations into the program. “Yesterday, we received a directive from the DAG [Deputy Attorney General], instructing on DOJ’s policy regarding guns going south into Mexico,” Shelley wrote on March 10, 2011. The directive from the Deputy AG, as she Shelley quotes it, is: “We should not design or conduct undercover operations which include guns crossing the border. If we have knowledge that guns are about to cross the border, we must take immediate action to stop the firearms from crossing the border, even if that prematurely terminates or otherwise jeopardizes an investigation.”

Attorney General Eric Holder has faced GOP heat on Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious for two straight days now. On Tuesday, Issa questioned him on it during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. Holder told Issa he’s only heard of the controversial gun trafficking programs over the past few weeks.

Then, on Wednesday, before Issa released the three new documents, Grassley grilled Holder about the email from Clemens and the indications of a policy shift during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Grassley pushed Holder on the e-mail from Clemens. “If the ATF, as the agency keeps telling us, did not knowingly allow guns into the hands of traffickers, why was that directive even necessary? Why issue a memo telling people to stop doing something unless you think maybe they have been doing it?” Grassley asked Holder.

“The memo was issued because the allegations had been raised,” Holder said, “the possibility that that happened was sufficient I thought to have clarification sent to the field that we should never allow guns in an uncontrolled fashion to cross the border or actually to leave any investigation in an uncontrolled way,” Holder said.

“I don’t think it represents a change in policy, but I certainly wanted to make sure that people in the field understood that that is in fact the policy. And to the extent there was any confusion, I wanted to make sure there was none,” Holder said.

Issa expressed dissatisfaction with Holder’s appearance of resisting cooperating with his and Grassley’s congressional investigations.

“Two federal agents are dead,” Issa said in a statement. “While Attorney General Holder and other top officials at the Justice Department have refused to address the reckless decisions made in Operation Fast and Furious that have created a serious public safety hazard, investigations led by Sen. Charles Grassley and I continue to receive information from deeply concerned insiders who believe those responsible for what has occurred cannot be trusted to investigate themselves.”

Spokespeople for the DOJ did not immediately return TheDC’s request for comment on the new release.