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Gunwalker: Friday ‘Document Dump’ Reveals Justice Dept. Misled Congress

The DOJ is now officially withdrawing a February 2011 letter sent to Senator Charles Grassley.

by
Patrick Richardson

Bio

December 5, 2011 - 9:09 am

On Friday, the Justice Department released nearly 1,400 pages of documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed more than 2,000 guns to “walk” into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. (The “Friday document dump” is a tactic used to keep controversial issues from dominating the news cycle during the week.)

According to the Associated Press:

[The Justice Department] provided Congress with documents detailing how department officials gave inaccurate information to a U.S. senator in the controversy surrounding Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed law enforcement initiative aimed at dismantling major arms trafficking networks on the Southwest border.

Note that AP refers to the Operation simply as being “flawed,” and as being a legitimate attempt to disrupt arms trafficking.

The most notable information in the release: DOJ is now taking the unusual step of withdrawing a letter it had sent to Congress, admitting the letter contained “inaccurate” information.” NPR reports:

Under fire for losing track of weapons that turned up at crime scenes along the Southwest border, the Justice Department has taken the extraordinary step of formally withdrawing an inaccurate letter about the episode that it sent to Congress earlier this year.

The letter — sent last February to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — claimed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives had not sanctioned the sale of firearms to straw purchasers. The letter also claimed ATF made every effort to recapture weapons which had been purchased illegally. These statements had been previously refuted, but the ATF and DOJ had continued to stand behind them prior to Friday.

According to AP:

[The letter was] responding to Grassley’s statements that the Senate Judiciary Committee had received allegations the ATF had sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to suspected straw purchasers. Grassley also said there were allegations that two of the assault weapons had been used in a shootout that killed customs agent Brian Terry.

Just four days after Grassley’s assertions, then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke — whose office was overseeing parts of Fast and Furious — sent an email to colleagues stating:

“Grassley’s assertions regarding the Arizona investigation and the weapons recovered” at the “murder scene are based on categorical falsehoods. I worry that ATF will take eight months to answer this when they should be refuting its underlying accusations right now.”

Also according to AP:

That email marked the start of an internal debate in the Justice Department over what and how much to say in response to Grassley’s allegations. The fact that there was an ongoing criminal investigation into Terry’s murder prompted some at the Justice Department to argue for less disclosure.

AP reports the DOJ inspector general is now investigating where Burke got the inaccurate information. Is it possible that — like Special Agent William Newell of the ATF — Burke simply lied? This, NPR notes, could be a problem for Burke:

Misleading Congress can be a prosecutable offense if a person who makes the statements knows they are false. But Attorney General Eric Holder has told lawmakers that so far he has no evidence anyone intended to deceive them. The matter remains under investigation not only by Republicans in Congress but also the Justice Department’s inspector general.

A couple of other interesting points NPR found in the document dump:

– Jason Weinstein, a senior aide in the Justice Department’s criminal division, played a key role in drafting the February 2011 letter. Weinstein, who had served as a highly regarded prosecutor in Baltimore and New York for a decade before taking a political appointment at the Justice Department, already had come under scrutiny from Republican lawmakers. They say he had approved the use of wiretaps in the Obama administration’s Fast and Furious operation and he should have dug deeper. The department has acknowledged that the operation sent as many as 2,000 weapons into Mexico but failed to follow them. Many of those guns later ended up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including near the body of slain Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.

– Drafts of the Feb. 4 letter reached the highest levels of the Justice Department, as aides to the deputy attorney general (Lanny Breuer) suggested fixes to the language and prodded subordinates to check the facts. In one email chain, a deputy named Lisa Monaco advised against using adjectives such as “categorically” and asked, “why poke the tiger” when it comes to communications with Capitol Hill.

According to NPR, Grassley was less than amused with the document dump:

Grassley, who has been leading an investigation into what went wrong in the Fast and Furious operation for most of this year, says, “the Justice Department can’t have it both ways.” He took to the Senate floor Thursday night to raise a series of new questions about the operation. Many of them could emerge anew next week, when Attorney General Holder testifies in a House oversight hearing December 8.

Burke had a few choice words for Grassley during the drafting of the initial letter. Roll Call magazine reports:

“What is so offensive about this whole project is that Grassley’s staff, acting as willing stooges for the Gun Lobby, have attempted to distract from the incredible success in dismantling [southwest border] gun trafficking operations … but, instead, lobbing this reckless despicable accusation that ATF is complicit in the murder of a fellow federal law enforcement officer,” [Burke] wrote in a Feb. 4 email.

Burke was wrong. What is actually offensive and despicable? Officials of the United States government repeatedly lied to Congress and to the American people. It’s time for Eric Holder to come clean on what he knew and when, and to resign.

Patrick Richardson has been a journalist for almost 15 years and an inveterate geek all his life. He blogs regularly at www.otherwheregazette.com, which aims to be like another SF magazine, just not so serious.
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