One of the distinctions that Republicans have drawn between Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed investigation that allowed weapons to "walk" into Mexico during the Obama administration, and Operation Wide Receiver, which did the same during the Bush administration, is that authorities who took part in the earlier investigation were coordinating their efforts with Mexican authorities.
"The difference in the previous administration is there was coordination with the Mexican government," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said at a hearing in December. "They made a real effort under Wide Receiver to pass off a small amount of weapons and track them."
But new documents DOJ disclosed to congressional investigators on Thursday appear to indicate that ATF officials didn't even consider looping Mexican authorities in on their operation until several months after the investigation began and ATF had already lost track of weapons that likely ended up in Mexico.
The selection of emails indicate that officials discussed the possibility of working with Mexican officials but only talk about it only in theory.
DOJ Assistant Attorney General Ron Weich wrote in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa that the documents paint a "mixed picture" of how Operation Wide Receiver unfolded. ATF agents had already allowed suspected "straw purchasers" to buy weapons well before they began discussing making the effort to involve Mexican authorities. The documents indicate that former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton participated in a discussion about the tactics used in the investigation, but don't explicitly indicate he signed off on the strategy. Ten months later, however, an email from an assistant U.S. attorney indicated that agents were still not arresting straw purchasers. The federal prosecutor indicated in May 2007 that it was their understanding that ATF "will probably take them down on the next purchase."
An ATF official observed in June of that year that they "want the money people in Mexico that are orchestrating this operation for indictment" and that they already "have numerous charges up here."
Later previously disclosed documents -- from September 2007, well into the investigation that started in early 2006 -- show that ATF officials were coordinating with Mexican authorities but they were unsuccessful in intercepting traffickers crossing the border and allowed weapons to flow into Mexico. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that officials worked with Mexican officials during Operation Wide Receiver.
By late 2008, the Arizona Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to the case was expressing concerns with the tactics used, saying it "is wrong for us to allow hundreds of guns to go into Mexico to drug people knowing that is where they are going."
An email from an unknown ATF official in August 2009 -- just before officials in the Gang Unit at Justice Department headquarters in D.C. took over the case -- indicates that a federal prosecutor on the case was "pushing back [with] moral dilemma [with] the [government] allowing the targets to traffic 300+ firearms to Mexico."
Republican who have been pursing Fast and Furious said the documents don't change their view of the matter.
In a statement, Sen. Chuck Grassley said that the documents showed that the "administration knew that guns were walked in Operation Wide Receiver, yet did nothing about it even as it was happening again in Fast and Furious."
"I've said all along that walking guns is wrong, period. I don't care who did it," Grassley said. "We know that Lanny Breuer knew about guns being walked in Operation Wide Receiver, which is why he needs to do the right thing, hold himself accountable and resign."
A spokeswoman for Issa said that DOJ was prolonging and complicating the investigation by refusing to offer direct answers and access to key witnesses like the lead prosecutor from Operation Wide Receiver.
"It is deeply discouraging that top Justice officials knew such details about problems in Operation Wide Receiver yet were still so quick to dismiss warnings from whistleblowers about reckless and dangerous tactics happening on a much larger scale in Operation Fast and Furious," said Becca Glover Watkins.
Updated: "Chairman Issa has long described these Bush era investigations as flawed and matters of concern," Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said in a statement. "There is, however, a distinction between them and efforts to coordinate with the Government of Mexico versus Fast and Furious where there was a proactive effort to keep the Mexican government and U.S. Mexico City Embassy in the dark."