Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, will hold the most high-profile hearing yet Wednesday in his investigation into Project Gunrunner, the controversial program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) which apparently let weapons the agency was supposed to keep tabs on end up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
The hearing will feature testimony from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and the mother, sister and cousin of Brian Terry, a border patrol agent whose death has been linked to criminals using weapons that were supposed to have been traced by ATF. Justice Department official Ronald Weich and three ATF special agents based out of ATF’s Phoenix office will also testify. Here’s what to expect.
- Issa and Grassley accusing the Justice Department of obstructionism. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have been the two members of Congress focusing the most attention on Project Gunrunner. They’ve dealt directly with whistleblowers based in Arizona who say they objected to what they believed were the irresponsible methods the agency used to catch guntrafficking kingpins instead of smaller straw purchasers.
- The Justice Department claiming that they’re cooperating with the probe as much as they can, but worrying the congressional probe could compromise ongoing investigation. DOJ’s Weich will say that revealing too much about the tactics and techniques that ATF was using could compromise ongoing prosecutions that came out of “Project Gunrunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious.” There’s some evidence that’s true: Oversight Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) has revealed that Issa’s committee released information that a federal judge had put under seal. Weich says the Justice Department takes the allegations that ATF officials let weapons “walk” across the border seriously, and points to an independent investigation being run by DOJ’s Inspector General Office.
- Questions about who signed off on the controversial tactic. So far, there’s been no evidence that the strategy — which consisted of letting guns “walk” by telling gun dealers who were suspicious that particular gun buyers were “strawpurchasers” and to go ahead with the sales anyway so ATF agents could trace them to people higher up in the organization — was approved by politically appointed officials at the Justice Department.
- Democrats saying that weak U.S. gun laws — those backed by the National Rifle Association and House Republicans — make stopping the flow of weapons to gun cartels difficult. Three Democratic Senators — Diane Feinstein (CA), Chuck Schumer (NY) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) — released a report this week using data from ATF to show that the “overwhelming majority” of firearms recovered at crime scenes by Mexican officials were traced back to the United States. The report points the finger at the gunshow loophole (which allows private sales of guns at gunshows without a background check), the importation of military-style weapons from foreign countries for civilian purchase, the expiration of the federal Assault Weapons Ban, and the lack of a requirement for federally licensed firearms dealers to report to ATF when they sell an individual two or more “longguns” within five business days, like they have to do with handguns.
- Heated rhetoric. “The reckless decisions of ATF and Justice Department officials in Operation Fast and Furious have devastated lives and put fear into communities on both sides of the border,” Issa said in a press release announcing the hearing. “By exploring this Justice Department sanctioned program, we can better understand the flawed process surrounding the genesis and implementation of an operation that put guns into the hands of criminals.”