Despite new disclosures, White House maintains senior officials didn’t know ATF was ‘letting guns walk’
Late on Friday the Obama White House disclosed a new avalanche of documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, in response to demands from Congressional investigators.
The documents show how often and how extensively Bill Newell, the lead Fast and Furious agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives communicated with senior Obama administration National Security official Kevin O’Reilly.
Among the documents the White House released was a map that Newell sent O’Reilly, documenting the final destinations in Mexico of the weapons ATF was tracking. In an email to O’Reilly, Newell described each arrow on the map as “the ultimate destination of firearms we intercepted and/or where the guns ended up.”
“The arrow chart is really interesting — and — no surprise — implies at least that different [Drug Trafficking] organizations in [Mexico] have very different and geographically distinct networks in the US for acquiring guns,” O’Reilly responded.
The chart and corresponding emails are related to the Phoenix ATF’s larger Gunrunner Impact Team (GRIT) project. It’s unclear if the guns depicted on Newell’s map were specifically those from Operation Fast and Furious, or others from a different but similar operation.
On Friday night CBS News reported that another operation that Newell and other Phoenix-based ATF officials led, one similar to Fast and Furious, also allowed guns to “walk” into Mexico. Its name was Operation Wide Receiver.
In a September 3, 2010, email to O’Reilly, Newell explained how ATF officials in Washington canceled a press conference he had scheduled to provide media with detail on the Obama administration’s ATF’s anti-trafficking operations.
“You didn’t get these from me,” Newell started the email. “The first attachment is what we were going to hand out to the media prior to our planned August 26th press conference. We will still use this IF we ever do a press conf. It had been vetted through ATF HQ. The second Word doc is what we were going to give to ATF DD Melson as notes in case he got asked specific questions about our Industry Operations efforts during GRIT.”
Later in that email, Newell provided O’Reilly with additional details on what he thought senior Obama national security adviser John Brennan should know about the ATF’s gun operations before a scheduled meeting with Mexican officials.
O’Reilly had asked Newell for information about gun operations so he could give it to Brennan. In that part of the email, Newell explained how straw purchasers helped the ATF apprehend bigger targets — a major point of contention in the Fast and Furious controversy.
“Also, not mentioned in these docs but VERY relevant to Mr. Brennan’s meeting next week,” Newell wrote, “is the fact that we and the USA were going to announce the indictment of a dozen ‘straw purchase’ case addressing firearms trafficking by 30 individuals … [W]e look at ‘straw’ purchases as the lowest ring on the firearms trafficking ladder but in many investigations we need their cooperation in order to identify the real traffickers and middlemen.”
In its Friday night document dump, the White House also released photos of a .50 caliber rifle. In the emails, Newell told O’Reilly the rifle “was purchased in Tucson, Arizona (part of another OCDTF case).”
As the emails are laced with typos and Newell uses the correct acronym in many other emails, he likely meant to write OCDETF, not OCDTF. OCDETF stands for Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, which are multi-agency Justice Department units, aimed at attacking large organized crime and drug traffic organizations.
The White House claims senior administration officials didn’t know Newell and the ATF were “letting guns walk” into Mexico, facilitating the trafficking of firearms to Mexican drug cartels through “straw purchasers” who could legally buy weapons in the United States but were doing so with the intention of selling them to drug cartels south of the border.
“[N]one of the communications between ATF and the White House revealed the investigative law enforcement tactics at issue in your inquiry, let alone any decision to allow guns to ‘walk,’” a White House lawyer wrote to Congressional investigators in a letter accompanying the documents it sent them late on Friday.
Obama administration officials also told Sen. Chuck Grassley and House oversight committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, both Republicans, that O’Reilly will not be available for a transcribed interview by September 30. They say he is currently on assignment for the State Department in Iraq.
These documents were provided in response to a request from Issa and Grassley in early September. The White House missed the congressional Republicans’ September 23 deadline by a full week, providing the documents late in the day on September 30.