In the escalating battle between congressional Republicans and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms over a controversial gun smuggling operation, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) says he is worried that bureau employees were ordered not to cooperate with Congress in a probe of the program.
Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly requested numerous records from the DOJ pertaining to “Operation Fast and Furious,” which allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track them.
Grassley on Friday released a Feb. 3 e-mail sent by an unidentified member of the DOJ Senior Management offices to ATF Deputy Director William J. Hoover. In the e-mail, released by Grassley, the DOJ official states that agents who receive queries from Grassley’s office “are in no way obligated to respond” to questions from Congress and “should refer congressional staff who seek information from you to the ATF’s office of congressional affairs.”
The guidance in the e-mail also says ATF employees “are not authorized to disclose non-public information” to Congress. But they can share that information with supervisors or the DOJ Inspector General, according to the e-mail.
“This is important to protect the independence and effectiveness of our law enforcement efforts as well as the privacy and due process interests of individuals who are involved in these investigations,” the e-mail said.
It is unclear whether ATF agents actually received the guidance. Unidentified officials from the Senior Management Offices, the Office of Legislative Affairs, the Criminal Division and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office were copied on the e-mail.
But Grassley said he is concerned about the impact such an e-mail would have. “However, it is of grave concern because, as you know, such attempts to prevent direct communications with Congress are not a lawfully authorized activity of any officer or employee of the United States whose salary is paid with appropriated funds,” Grassley wrote in a letter to ATF acting Director Kenneth Melson on Friday. (Grassley last week was among a group of senators who introduced legislation that would expand protections for government whistleblowers.)
A DOJ spokeswoman told Main Justice that the Department is reviewing Grassley’s letter and will respond appropriately.
In his letter, Grassley also divulged the name of a second Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees who is cooperating with a congressional investigation into the ATF program.
George Gillett, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Phoenix Field Division, has spoken with Congress, and attended a couple of introductory meetings hosted by the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight Committee staff, Grassley wrote. Special Agent John Dodson of Phoenix also has communicated with Congress about “Operation Fast and Furious,” according to CBS News.
“Since our investigation began, I’ve continued to be contacted by agents and others within the ATF about wrongdoing regarding Fast and Furious at the ATF and the Justice Department,” Grassley said in a statement. “If people have concerns they should be able to express themselves without feeling pressure from their bosses.”
Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who also has requested numerous records from the DOJ regarding the ATF program, have raised concerns about whether guns with ties to the program played a role in the killings of federal law enforcement officials this year.
Grassley has asked whether ATF operations contributed to the shooting of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata, who was killed in Mexico in February. Agent Victor Avila Jr., who was with Zapata during the shooting, was wounded. Issa subpoenaed the DOJ for information on the program including documents about the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, whose body was found near two guns traced to the program.
President Barack Obama has said neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder consented to “Operation Fast and Furious.” Holder told Congress in March that he informed Justice Department officials that allowing guns to “walk” is unacceptable.
The DOJ Office of Inspector General currently is conducting an investigation into the ATF gun smuggling policies.