E-Mails Detail DOJ Concern Over ATF ‘Gun Walking’ Well Before ‘Fast & Furious’

A high-ranking Justice Department official was “stunned” when he learned in 2010 that agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed weapons to “walk” across the Mexican border during the Bush administration, according to recently disclosed documents.

Documents show that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, a career federal prosecutor in a leadership position within the Obama DOJ’s Criminal Division, and other officials worked to keep the attention of the press away from the Bush-era “gun walking” tactics long before the problems with Operation Fast and Furious went public.

“Been thinking more about ‘Wide Receiver I’,” Weinstein wrote in an email on April 12, 2010. “ATF HQ [headquarters] should/will be embarrassed that they let this many guys walk — I’m stunned, based on what we’ve had to do to make sure not even a single operable weapon walked in [undercover] operations I’ve been involved in planning — and there will be press about that.”Weinstein later planned a meeting with ATF officials and public relations officials in the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs to discuss the impending indictment in the Wide Receiver case that “has some rather significant (and I hope unique) press challenges.”

Following the meeting, Weinstein related in an April 28, 2010 email that they thought it would be better to announce the Operation Wide Receiver indictments as part of a larger announcement so as to focus on “aggregate seizures and not on particulars of any one indictment.”

The emails were included in 652 pages of documents that DOJ officials sent to Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and other officials on Monday in response to his Oct. 11 subpoena. Senior Justice Department officials provided TPM and other media outlets with selections from the documents they sent to Capitol Hill and briefed reporters on their contents.

Documents show that Weinstein followed up in an email to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the top official in DOJ’s Criminal Division, on April 30. In a statement handed out by the Justice Department, Breuer apologized for not telling his colleagues at the Justice Department about the issues with Operation Wide Receiver once the allegations about similar tactics in Fast and Furious came out in the press.

“ATF let a bunch of guns walk in an effort to get upstream conspirators but only got straws, and didn’t recover many guns,” Weinstein wrote to Breuer of Operation Wide Receiver. “Some were recovered in MX (Mexico) after being used in crimes.”

Following the discovery of the “gun walking” tactic in Operation Wide Receiver, Breuer met with ATF officials to discuss their concerns. ATF evidently didn’t do much to stop the tactics from being used in Fast and Furious (one ATF official, William McMahon, wrote in an email that the April 2010 meeting with DOJ “went ok” and that there were some “surprises but nothing terrible.”)

The meeting between ATF and DOJ officials over the controversial “gun walking” tactic came shortly before ATF officials met with members of Congress, including Rep. Issa, to discuss their anti-gun trafficking efforts.

Weapons from Fast and Furious later showed up at the scene of a December 2010 shootout in Arizona in which U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry was killed. Additional weapons have turned up at crime scenes in Mexico.

In a later email, Weinstein explained why DOJ didn’t issue a press release about the Operation Wide Receiver indictments, cases which sat dormant for two years until prosecutors gave them another look under the Obama administration.

“Lots of guns allowed to go south and came out on same day as IG Report on Gunrunner so Laura, Jim and I agreed the case would be weaved into anti-ATF story,” Weinstein wrote on Nov. 20, 2010 email.

Capitol Hill Reaction

Up on Capitol Hill, where some Republicans have called for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder over Fast and Furious, the reaction to the latest revelations was swift.

“At first glance, though, the documents indicate that contrary to previous denials by the Justice Department, the criminal division has a great deal of culpability in sweeping the previous Wide Receiver strategy under the rug and then allowing the subsequent Operation Fast and Furious to continue without asking key questions,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement.

“Most importantly, officials raised very appropriate questions related to Operation Wide Receiver at the same time that many of these same officials were receiving briefings on Operation Fast and Furious,” Grassley said. “It begs the question why they didn’t ask the same important policy questions about an ongoing case being run out of the same field division.”

Grassley also that that the impression left to Senate Judiciary Committee staff in a February briefing was false. “Despite their denials of gun walking, it appears that senior Justice Department officials clearly knew that it had happened in Operation Wide Receiver and ignored the red flags that it was happening in Fast and Furious,” Grassley said.

Breuer is testifying on the Hill on Tuesday while Holder will be testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 8 and the House Judiciary Committee in December.

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