The Justice Department has released several email exchanges between top officials at the department and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office that took place immediately after the death of a Border Patrol agent that has become the center of the controversial Fast and Furious gun-running operation.
The email exchange, sent to Congress late Friday, first show on Dec. 15, 2010, former Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke alerting Monty Wilkinson, an aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, about the shooting of agent Brian Terry. Responding, Wilkinson writes “Tragic. I’ve alerted the AG, Acting DAG…”
Hours later, once the Justice Department had been notified that Terry died from his wounds, Burke wrote back to Wilkinson, saying “The guns found in the desert near the murder [sic] BP officer connect back to the investigation we were going to talk about — they were AK-47s purchased at a Phoenix gun store.”
That investigation, referred to as Fast and Furious, was a gun-walking operation headed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Agents tracked about 2,000 guns purchased by straw buyers in the United States and intended for Mexico. The operation’s goal was to track the weapons’ movements in order to get proof of Mexican cartel involvement. But the operation backfired, with the ATF losing track of hundreds of weapons. Two AK-47s from the operation were recovered at the scene of the shootout between Border Patrol agents and Mexican bandits where Terry was killed.
Many in Congress have been adamant about getting to the bottom of the flawed operation, with top Justice Department officials being called to testify at hearings. Some Republicans in Congress have called for Holder to resign or be fired in the wake of the operation. Many others involved in the operation have been reassigned to new posts.
Also on Friday, the Justice Department issued a letter to top members of the House Oversight Committee and the Senate and House judiciary committees.
The letter, signed by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, points out several actions the department and ATF have already taken to ensure “that such tactics are not utilized in the future” and to stave off “the epidemic of gun trafficking on the Southwest border.”
Cole highlighted changes within the department and ATF, including appointing B. Todd Jones to serve as Acting Director of ATF, clarifying ATF’s firearm transfer policy and requiring additional oversight on wiretap and confidential-informant cases, according to the letter.
Cole also called on Congress to close legal loopholes that make it difficult to arrest straw buyers and track weapons. Cole asked for Congress to enact a federal firearms trafficking statute, which would put straw purchasing and trafficking on the books as enforceable violations. The department also calls for stronger penalties for such crimes.
In addition, Cole asked Congress to vote to fund an ATF policy that requires gun dealers in the border states to report multiple sales of certain guns to law enforcement.
Holder is slated to go before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday.