It was early 2011. Reports that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had let guns “walk” across the border to Mexico were only just starting to emerge. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to to the Justice Department on Jan. 27 asking if an assault rifle bought by a suspected “straw purchaser” during an ATF-authorized transaction with a firearms dealer was found at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
If contemporaneous emails sent by Justice Department officials are any indication, they didn’t have any clue what Grassley was talking about. And when officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona and at ATF headquarters assured them gun walking wasn’t going on, they took them at their word and adopted that false position as the official stance of the Justice Department.
The new developments come ahead of Attorney General Eric Holder’s scheduled testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. A few dozen Republicans in Congress (but not Issa) have called for Holder’s resignation over the operation, though there’s been no evidence Holder knew about the gun walking allegations until whistleblowers went public.
Responding to Grassley’s original letter, DOJ officials said in a Feb. 4, 2011 letter that ATF “makes every effort to interdict weapons that were purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.” The letter to Grassley from DOJ’s congressional liaison Ron Weich said that the allegation that “ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico — is false.”
Now DOJ has formally withdrawn their Feb. 4 letter to Grassley. In a new letter to the Republican Senator and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on Friday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said DOJ officials “relied on information provided by supervisors from the components in the best position to know the relevant facts: ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona,” conceding that information they provided “was inaccurate.”
The Justice Department also made the rare step of turning over 1,364 pages of what they considered “highly deliberative internal communications” about the drafting of a response letter to congressional investigators. This narrative is based on a selection of documents given to reporters at a background briefing with senior Justice Department officials on Friday.
First, some context. Grassley’s letter was emailed to DOJ just before noon on Thursday, Jan. 27. DOJ responded on Friday, Feb. 4. For an agency that can take months to respond to congressional inquiries, that’s lightning speed.
The emails seem to indicate that at least some officials thought from the start that the whistleblower accusations Grassley relayed in his letter — which didn’t specifically mention the Arizona-specific Operation Fast and Furious but rather ATF’s Project Gunrunner, the name of the broader effort to stop the flow of guns south of the border — were bogus. They made some effort to confirm the facts, but ultimately relied on the representations of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona and at ATF headquarters.
ATF’s leadership assured DOJ that they “didn’t let guns walk,” “didn’t know they were straw purchasers at the time,” that they “had no probable cause to arrest the purchaser or prevent action,” that they “always try to interdict weapons purchased illegally,” according to contemporaneous notes taken during the discussions.
Since letters to Congress are traditionally written in the “voice” of the Justice Department, DOJ’s original letter adopted the representations of the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office and ATF officials as un-attributed facts. But there was plenty of internal debate about just how strong the language of the letter should be.
One DOJ official pushing for a strong response to Grassley’s letter was Jason Weinstein, who believed that the allegations were “terribly damaging to ATF.” He’s the deputy assistant attorney general in DOJ’s Criminal Division who — nine months before the internal debate over Grassley’s letter — wrote that he was “stunned” to learn about Bush-era instances of gun walking and worked with DOJ’s public affairs team to deal with some “rather significant (and I hope unique) press challenges.”
Weinstein told his boss Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer that in hindsight he wished he hadn’t relied so heavily on the assertions of officials at ATF headquarters and in the U.S. Attorney’s office. He told Breuer, according to a written response to questions from Grassley’s office, that he “viewed, incorrectly, the misguided tactics used in Operation Wide Receiver — which resulted in the ATF losing control of guns that then crossed the border into Mexico — as having no relation to the allegations that were being made about Operation Fast and Furious.”
Before he joined the Criminal Division at DOJ headquarters, Weinstein spent a decade as a federal prosecutor focused on violent crime in Manhattan and Baltimore. His own experience with ATF’s Baltimore office (which has a pretty solid reputation in the law enforcement community) may have had an impact on his view of ATF. He wrote in a 2010 email that he was stunned about the gun walking allegations “based on what we’ve had to do to make sure not even a single operable weapon walked in [undercover] operations I’ve been involved in planning.”
The internal debate was so intense that Weinstein joked in an email to colleagues that the “Magna Carta was easier to get done than this was.” One point of contention: former U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke (who, as TPM reported, called Grassley staffers “willing stooges for the Gun Lobby” in one email to colleagues) and Weinstein were lobbying for the letter to call the allegation that ATF purposefully permitted weapons purchased on Jan. 16, 2010 go to Mexico “categorically false.”
Staffers in Deputy Attorney General Cole’s office were worried about language like that. Lisa Monaco wrote that DOJ would “want to be 300% sure” if they used “categorically” in the letter.
“I’ve developed an aversion to adjectives and oversight letters,” Monaco wrote. “Why poke the tiger?”
Burke also complained that every version of the letter “gets weaker” and said they “will be apologizing to [Grassley] by tomorrow afternoon.” He was upset that Grassley set up the “New (warped) standard — you should have stopped this gun from going to Mexico even before your investigation began, even though the sale is legal, even though the dealer has no reporting requirement, even though the dealer never even volunteered this info.”
DOJ’s inspector general is examining the entire Fast and Furious operation, including the question of who gave the bad information to Burke, who resigned in the fallout over the botched ATF operation.