A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives official attempted to put a gun shop owner at ease over the dealer’s participation in a controversial gun smuggling operation and arranged meetings to discuss his worries, according to e-mails released Thursday.
The owner, who isn’t identified, wrote in an April 2010 e-mail to ATF Phoenix Supervisor David Voth that he was concerned that he would be liable for guns the would sell to suspicious buyers as part of the ATF operation that allowed firearms to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track them. A series of e-mails between the owner and Voth were released by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been investigating “Project Gunrunner” and its “Operation Fast and Furious” component.
“We just want to make sure we are cooperating with ATF and that we are not viewed as selling to bad guys,” the owner wrote in the e-mail.
The dealer asked the ATF, a Justice Department agency, for something in writing that showed the arrangement between the agency and his shop. But the DOJ declined, only providing verbal assurances that measures were in place that would thwart the further circulation of guns purchased through the program, according to Grassley.
“As we now know, those assurances proved to be untrue,” the Republican senator wrote Wednesday in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that contained the e-mails.
The ATF program made it possible for suspected smugglers to buy 1,765 firearms, 797 of which were recovered in Mexico and the United States after they were used in crimes. Of those crime guns, 195 were recovered in Mexico.
Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who is also probing the program, have raised concerns about whether firearms with links to the program played a part in the killings of federal law enforcement officials this year.
The Republican senator 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 records on the program including documents about the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, whose body was located near two guns traced to the program.
Just months before Terry’s death, the gun shop owner wrote in a June 2010 e-mail to Voth that he was disturbed by a Fox News report about guns and the border.
“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 owner wrote, adding: “I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ as well as my concern for all the agents safety that protect our country.”
President Barack Obama has said neither he nor 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.
Responding to Grassley’s release of the e-mails, Justice Department officials said the department’s Office of Inspector General is investigating the ATF gun smuggling policies.