As early as April 2010, an Arizona gun dealer was expressing concern to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) about whether firearms sold from his store as part of a federal sting could end up in the wrong hands.
It was an eerie premonition from an unidentified gun dealer cooperating with ATF’s “Project Gunrunner,” an initiative aimed at stopping the flow of guns to Mexican cartels. Project Gunrunner has recently taken heat after a whistleblower told media outlets that ATF supervisors ordered agents not to intercept weapons made in suspicious sales but instead to monitor them to see where the weapons ended up. The agency reportedly allowed more than 1,700 guns be illegally trafficked to Mexico.
In an email sent on April 13, 2010, ATF supervisor David Roth tried to reassure the gun dealer that the guns were being carefully tracked.
“I understand that the frequency with which some individuals under investigation by our office have been purchasing firearms from your business has caused concerns for you. … However, if it helps put you at ease we (ATF) are continually monitoring these suspects using a variety of investigative techniques which I cannot go into detail.”
The gun dealer, unnamed in the emails, replied with a request for an official letter that would prevent the dealer from being held accountable if the guns did end up involved in criminal activity.
“For us, we were hoping to put together something like a letter of understanding to alleviate concerns of some type of recourse against us down the road for selling these items. We just want to make sure we are cooperating with ATF and that we are not viewed as selling to bad guys,” the dealer wrote.
In response, Voth organized a meeting with the dealer and the assistant U.S. Attorney to “further discuss” the issue. But in June, the gun dealer wrote to Voth again with heightened anxiety after watching a Fox News report about firearms and the border.
“The segment, if the information was correct, is disturbing to me,” the dealer wrote. “When you, [the Assistant U.S. Attorney], and I met on May 13th, I shared my concerns with you guys that I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys.”
The dealer wrote that he wanted to help ATF with its investigation — but not at the risk of agents’ safety. “I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ,” he wrote. “I guess I am looking for a bit of reassurance that the guns are not getting south or in the wrong hands…if possible please email me back and share with me any reassurances that you can.”
The emails were disclosed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been probing who told agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to tell gun dealers to let so-called “straw purchases” go ahead during the Project Gunrunner operation so that ATF could find out where those weapons ended up.
Grassley took to the floor of the Senate on Thursday to call on the Justice Department to “come clean” on who told federal agents to allow suspicious sales of guns to individuals believed to be making string purchases for Mexican drug cartels.
Earlier this month, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) announced he was issuing a subpoena to ATF for documents related to Project Gunrunner. Now Grassley’s office is upset that DOJ isn’t giving him the same document they’re giving Issa.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder this week, Grassley wrote that he was concerned that DOJ did not give him access to the documents Issa got and said the Justice Department “has produced not one single page of documents in response to my inquiries.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman didn’t have an immediate reply to Grassley’s letter. But she said in a statement that “took the concerns raised by ATF agents seriously and that’s why he asked the Inspector General to get to the bottom of what happened.”
“Because questions have been raised and so that there is not confusion, the Attorney General has made it clear to the law enforcement agencies and prosecutors working along the Southwest Border that no one in the Department should allow guns to illegally cross the border into Mexico,” Tracy Schmaler said.
Grassley, whose office has been working closely with agents inside of ATF, said he’s now gotten more details about Project Gunrunner from federal employees inside the agency than he’s gotten from the Justice Department itself.
“Now, ironically, I have provided more internal documents to the Justice Department in this investigation than the Justice Department has provided to me,” Grassley said in his speech on the floor of the Senate.
In light of this new evidence, Grassley said in his letter to Holder, the Justice Department‟s claim “that the ATF never knowingly sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers is simply not credible.”
“Do you stand by the assertion in the Department‟s reply that the ATF whistleblower allegations are ‘false’ and specifically that ATF did not sanction or otherwise knowingly allow the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers?” Grassley wrote in the letter. “If so, please explain why in light of the mounting evidence to the contrary.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman referred TPM to Holder’s previous comments on the ongoing DOJ Inspector General probe of how Project Gunrunner was operated and previous correspondence with members of Congress.
Meanwhile, William Newell — the ATF agent in charge of the Phoenix office — has been replaced by Thomas E. Brandon, special agent in charge of the Detroit office, Allan Lengel reports. Newell has been sent to D.C. to help prepare and answer questions for Congress and the Office of Inspector General, Lengel reported.
Additional reporting by Melissa Jeltsen.