Posts Tagged ‘Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives’
Monday, December 12th, 2011

Operation Fast and Furious, the controversial gun-tracking effort that has prompted calls for some heads to roll at the Department of Justice, is having another side-effect: delaying a Senate vote on Kathryn Keneally, who has been nominated to be Assistant Attorney General to head DOJ’s Tax Division.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, says Keneally seems qualified and that he’s prepared to vote for her. “However, given the lack of cooperation I’m getting from the Department of Justice, I can’t commit to moving forward with her nomination on the Senate floor,” Grassley said last week as the furor over Fast and Furious seemed to peak.

Grassley has been among the loudest critics of Fast and Furious, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed straw buyers to acquire hundreds of guns so that they could be tracked across the U.S.-Mexican border, helping law enforcement root out Mexican gangsters. The endeavor backfired mightily, as the ATF lost track of many of the weapons, two of which were found at the scene of a shootout a year ago in which a Border Patrol agent was killed.

Grassley has zeroed in on Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, accusing the Criminal Division chief not only of  “incredibly poor judgment” but of being intentionally misleading in his statements about Fast and Furious. Grassley demanded last week that Breuer step down, or be fired by Attorney General Eric Holder (see Main Justice’s report).

Grassley has demanded that DOJ officials who are interviewed in the inquiry over Fast and Furious not double-team their questioners by being accompanied by both DOJ and personal lawyers.  Until the DOJ cooperates, Keneally’s nomination may languish, even though Grassley said she demonstrated an impressive command of tax issues — impressive, at least, when compared to those of Mary Smith, whose nomination to head the Tax Division was withdrawn after her critics complained her main qualification was not expertise in tax matters but her political connections (see Main Justice’s report).

The Fast and Furious controversy could also stall the nomination of Kevin A. Ohlson, a high DOJ official and longtime aide to Holder, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, as Main Justice noted recently.

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Motley County, Texas, may bring criminal charges against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for starting a fire there last week, the Plainview Daily Herald reported Friday.

The ATF might face misdemeanor charges for sparking a 150-acre fire during the destruction of explosives as part of a training exercise. Firefighters from five area departments responded to the blaze that raged for six hours.

Jim Luera, resident agent in charge for the ATF in Lubbock, took responsibility for the mishap and said the agency would pay for damages.

Motley County Attorney Tom Edwards said the matter is ironic.

“We have the federal government that has just refused aid to the state of Texas for all our fire damage throughout the state, and then here comes federal agents who start another fire,” Edwards told KCBD-TV, according to the newspaper.

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

The Justice Department is disputing claims that a DOJ document released by the House Oversight Committee shows that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Criminal Division knew about and played a role in a controversial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun smuggling program.

The panel under Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Wednesday released a March 10, 2010, memorandum from Breuer and signed by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco approving an application to wiretap an individual who was allegedly a suspect in “Operation Fast and Furious,” which allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track them. The committee said in a news release that the memorandum showed that Breuer had “participation in and knowledge of Operation Fast and Furious.”

DOJ officials disputed  that assertion.  The Criminal Division Office of Enforcement Operations receives thousands of applications each year related to law enforcement investigations, they said. The applications are typically approved by Deputy Assistant Attorneys General except for roving wiretaps, which require the approval of the Assistant Attorney General.

DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said wiretap application reviews are ‘”a narrow assessment of whether a legal basis exists to support a surveillance request that ultimately goes before a judge for decision.”

“These reviews are not approval of the underlying investigations or operations,” Schmaler said.

She said the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office and the ATF Phoenix Field Office, in addition to the multi-agency Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force, approved “Operation Fast and Furious.” A Jan. 8, 2010, DOJ briefing paper obtained by Issa shows that Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke and ATF Phoenix chief William Newell had met several times to discuss the program. Newell has been sent to D.C. to help handle inquiries from Congress and the Office of Inspector General about the operation.

The ATF program allowed suspected smugglers to buy more than 1,700 firearms, almost 800 of which were recovered in Mexico and the United States after they were used in crimes. Of those crime guns, about 200 were recovered in Mexico. And two firearms traced to the program were found near the body of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was murdered in December.

Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have sent several letters to the Justice Department and the ATF, a DOJ agency, requesting records and documents about the program. Issa has threatened to try to hold ATF officials in contempt of Congress because they have not responded to his questions. They also deployed congressional investigators Arizona as part of their investigation.

“Two federal agents are dead,” Issa said in a statement. “While Attorney General [Eric] Holder and other top officials at the Justice Department have refused to address the reckless decisions made in Operation Fast and Furious that have created a serious public safety hazard, investigations led by Sen. Charles Grassley and I continue to receive information from deeply concerned insiders who believe those responsible for what has occurred cannot be trusted to investigate themselves.”

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Holder said he took “great exception” to the implications that DOJ officials are responsible for the deaths. The Attorney General said he did not learn about the program until just recently and the DOJ Office of Inspector General is investigating the gun smuggling operations.

The DOJ has maintained that it did not knowingly allow guns to cross into Mexico as part of “Operation Fast and Furious.” In a May 3 letter to Holder from Issa and Grassley, a handwritten postscript says, “You should check to see if you are getting accurate information from your staff. You might be ill-served.”

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Grassley questioned Holder about a March 9 memorandum from Deputy Attorney General James Cole that advised DOJ officials not to “design or conduct undercover operations which include guns crossing the border.” The senator asked the Attorney General why the memorandum was necessary if the DOJ didn’t knowingly allow guns to enter Mexico.

Holder said the memorandum was issued to provide clarification that allowing guns to cross the border in an uncontrolled way is unacceptable.

“The memo was issued because the allegation had been raised and I take those allegations seriously,” Holder said.

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Attorney General Eric Holder should resign over the implementation of a controversial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun smuggling program, a key official from the National Rifle Association said Saturday.

Wayne LaPierre

“Operation Fast and Furious” — which allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track them — was the result of a “political agenda,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said at the organization’s annual, according to a transcript. The operation led to the deaths of “one, and perhaps two, federal agents killed … and countless innocent victims,” he said.

The ATF program made it possible for suspected smugglers to buy more than 1,700 firearms, almost 800 of which were recovered in Mexico and the United States after they were used in crimes. Of those crime guns, about 200 were recovered in Mexico. The ATF is a Justice Department agency.

Two firearms traced to the program were found near the body of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was murdered in December. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who is probing the program along with House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), has asked whether the ATF program also had a connection 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.

“We respect and admire our law enforcement officers — the dedicated field officers who work under difficult conditions,” LaPierre said. “But there’s a big difference between good field agents and their bureaucratic, politicking bosses at ATF headquarters in Washington. And when it comes to those scheming bureaucrats in Washington … gun owners have had it!”

DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller said Holder is concerned about the issues  raised over the program.

“The attorney general takes seriously the concerns that have been raised, and that’s why he has asked the inspector general to get to the bottom of it,” Miller told Politico. “He has also made it clear to the law enforcement agencies and prosecutors working along the Southwest Border that no one in the Department should allow guns to illegally cross the border into Mexico.”

Also this week, NRA officials announced it was ending its relationship with King & Spalding as an outside counsel, over the law firm’s decision not to represent the House of Representatives in its defense  of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The Republican-controlled House had hired the law firm to defend the statute, which defines marriage as a union between man and woman and the DOJ will no longer defend. George W. Bush Solicitor General Paul Clement, who is leading the defense of the statute, resigned from the firm in protest of the law firm’s decision to drop the House.

David Lehman, NRA deputy executive director and general counsel, wrote in a letter to King & Spalding that the gun rights organization’s decision to drop the law firm wasn’t “motivated by any position on the statute itself,” but was driven by concerns about the law firm’s “ability to be a reliable and effective advocate for any client facing potentially controversial litigation.”

“The representation we have received to date from King & Spalding, specifically by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, has been outstanding,” Lehman wrote. “Given your firm’s recent conduct, we cannot continue to rely on King & Spalding to represent the NRA. Indeed, your decision only serves to embolden ideological organizations to protest the legal representation of other organizations with which they disagree, with the goal of freezing their opponents out of legal representation entirely.”

A spokesman for King & Spalding declined to comment to Main Justice.

This story has been updated.

Friday, April 29th, 2011

The Obama administration on Friday extended the comment period for controversial proposed rules that would require gun dealers in states bordering Mexico to disclose sales of multiple rifles.

The rules are intended to curb arms smuggling across the border. The administration has received about 13,000 responses to the proposal so far. About 70 percent of the comments were favorable.

The National Rifle Association opposes the plan. The gun rights organization said the administration is using gun crimes in Mexico as an excuse to limit firearm sales — an accusation that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives denies. However, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said the proposed rule respects the rights of law-abiding citizens to purchase rifles, while ensuring that law enforcement has a new powerful tool to catch straw purchasers and illegal traffickers.

Two lawmakers, Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.)  attempted to include a provision in the omnibus spending bill that is funding most federal programs that would have prohibited the bureau from using federal funds to implement the rules. The amenndment was dropped at the last minute, after lobbying from some lawmakers and Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S.

The ATF has come under fire from congressional Republicans for a gun smuggling operation — “Project Gunrunner” and its “Operation Fast and Furious” component — which allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track them.

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. Two of the firearms traced to the program were found near the U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was killed last year.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have sent investigators to Arizona to probe the program.

Issa and Grassley also have sent several letters to the Justice Department and the ATF, a DOJ agency, demanding records and documents about the program. Issa has threatened to try to hold ATF officials in contempt of Congress because they have not answered his queries.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Saying the Justice Department knew about a controversial gun smuggling operation and failed to stop it, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) threatened Wednesday to try to hold DOJ officials in contempt of Congress if they don’t produce documents he has subpoenaed.

Issa said he has documents indicating that DOJ officials knew about “Project Gunrunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious.”  He accused Kenneth Melson, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of stonewalling his probe and threatened to initiate contempt of Congress proceedings against him if documents relating to the operation were not sent to him. Main Justice will be updating this story.

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Thursday, April 14th, 2011

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.

Monday, April 11th, 2011

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.

Friday, April 1st, 2011

This story has been updated.

The chairman of the House Oversight Committee has subpoenaed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for information about a controversial federal gun smuggling program.

In a March 16 letter to ATF acting Director Kenneth Melson,  Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)  requested records related to “Project Gunrunner” and  “Operation Fast and Furious,” which allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track them. He also asked in the letter for documents about the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, whose body was found near two guns traced to the program. Issa set a March 30 deadline for the documents.

The administration missed the deadline. “The unwillingness of this Administration – most specifically the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms – to answer questions about this deadly serious matter is deeply troubling,” Issa said in a statement. “Allegations surrounding this program are serious and the ability of the Justice Department to conduct an impartial investigation is in question. Congressional oversight is necessary to get the truth about what is really happening.”

According to a news release, Issa’s subpoena orders the ATF to provide his committee by April 13 with documents and communications related to:

  • the origin of “Project Gunrunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious” and any possible changes made to them around the time of the November 2010 release of a Justice Department Inspector General report about “Project Gunrunner.”
  • officials that allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to track them.
  • ATF and other DOJ-related investigations about Terry’s murder and the guns found at the crime scene.
  • weapons picked up at the crime scene or during the investigation of Terry’s murder.
  • the sale of guns to Jaime Avila, who has been charged with buying firearms found at the scene of Terry’s murder.
  • a 200-page presentation a supervisor made in spring 2010 to ATF officials at their headquarters.
  • “Operation Fast and Furious” and its connection to Special Agent in Charge William D. Newell, Assistant Special Agents in Charge Jim Needles and George Gillette, Group Supervisor David Voth, or any case agent from November 1, 2021 to the present. A memorandum Newell sent to ATF officials in D.C. after Avila’s arrest and Terry’s murder also is also requested.
  • objections or complains from ATF agents about the agency’s gun smuggling programs.

On Tuesday, Issa also asked Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for records related to a meeting that Obama administration officials had with Mexican authorities about “Project Gunrunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious.” Issa said then-U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the DOJ Criminal Division held a meeting about the program in the summer of 2010. He wants those documents by 5 p.m. on April 12.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also has demanded information related to the ATF’s gun smuggling investigations. He asked Melson to respond to questions about 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.

President Barack Obama last week said neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder approved “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.

Meanwhile, a law enforcement bulletin was issued last month warning federal agents working on the U.S. border with Mexico that Mexican drug cartel members are planning to kill them by shooting them from across the border, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s oversight subcommittee said at a hearing Thursday.

“The shooting of Special Agents Zapata and Avila is a game-changer which alters the landscape of the United States’ involvement in Mexico’s war against the drug cartels,” McCaul said in remarks prepared for the hearing. “For the first time in 25 years, the cartels are targeting American law enforcement.”

UPDATE

The Justice Department is “surprised and disappointed” in the subpoena from Issa, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich of the Office of Legislative Affairs wrote in a letter to the chairman on Friday.

Weich said before Issa issued his subpoena, the DOJ informed the committee that it would work with it on the chairman’s requests, producing several documents in the next week.

“Despite this unnecessary step on your part, we will review the subpoena and work with the Committee to address your concerns,” Weich wrote in his letter.

But the DOJ would compromise prosecutions and investigations, including the probe into Terry’s death, if it turned over certain documents, the Assistant Attorney General said. The DOJ “would seek to work productively to find other ways to be responsive to its needs,” he wrote.

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Add Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to the growing list of people who want answers about a gun smuggling probe conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives along the Mexican border.

Issa, the Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, this week sent  a letter to agency acting Director Kenneth E. Melson accusing him of not cooperating with congressional inquiries about Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious, CBS News reported this week. Fast and Furious allowed suspected smugglers to purchase 1,765 firearms, 797 of which were recovered in Mexico and the United States after they were used in crimes. Two of those guns were found at the scene of the killing of Agent Brian Terry in December. Jamie Aliva, a straw purchaser of firearms, was arrested shortly after the killing.

In his letter, Issa cited frustration expressed last week by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Issa quoted Grassley as saying he was getting the “runaround” from DOJ.

Issa echoed Grassley’s contention that the Justice Department’s Inspector General cannot conduct an impartial probe of the programs. “Only a full congressional investigation can achieve this result and restore the public’s faith in the workings of the ATF,” he wrote. Issa requested Melson to produce a variety of documents from the program by March 30.

The bureau had no immediate comment on Issa’s allegations.