Emails: Bush-Era Embassy, Prosecutor’s Office Approved ATF ‘Gun Walking’ Tactic

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As House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) continues to try to pin the flawed “gun walking” tactic employed in Operation Fast and Furious on the Obama administration, it’s becoming increasingly clear that problems with ATF’s Phoenix division date back at least into the Bush era.

TPM has obtained the documents relating to another Bush-era ATF operation (on top of Operation Wide Receiver) which deployed the “gun walking” tactic. The development was first reported by Pete Yost of the Associated Press.

In fact, ATF officials wrote in 2007 that the gun walking tactic had “full approval” of the U.S. Attorney’s Office being run by an interim Bush appointee and that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico was “fully on-board.”

Under DOJ policy, illicit arms shipments are supposed to be intercepted whenever possible. But the emails show that just like in Operation Fast and Furious, official planned to allow guns to “walk” across the border and into Mexico in an attempt to identify traffickers higher up in the operation (rather than low ranking “straw purchasers,” who are difficult to prosecute thanks to the lack of an anti-trafficking gun law).

On Sept. 27, 2007 — when the Justice Department was reeling from the resignation of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — ATF agents in Phoenix and Mexico were conducting partial surveillance of suspects who purchased numerous weapons at a federally licensed firearms dealership.

After they watched the group purchase 19 weapons on Sept. 21 and 24 and additional weapons on Sept. 27, they watched as the weapons crossed the border into Mexico.

“Phoenix AZ ATF agents observed this vehicle commit to the border and reach the Mexican side until it could no longer be seen,” ATF assistant director Carson Carroll wrote in a Sept. 28, 2007 email. “We, the ATF (Mexico) did not get a response from the Mexican side until 20 minutes later, who then informed us that they did not see the vehicle cross.”

A few days later, William Newell — the ATF official in charge of the Phoenix division — tried to assure colleagues that everything would be okay.

“I know you have reservations but please rest assured that this will go as planned, as allowed per MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) with Mexico, with full approval of the USAO (confirmed again late this afternoon), and will have big payoffs for us and the Department in addresing (sic) Mexico’s concerns that we (US) aren’t doing enough to address their concerns,” Newell wrote in an Oct. 4, 2007 email. “Trust me, I’m with Gov’t.”

“Wow, I feel so much better,” William Hoover, the ATF Assistant Director for Field Operations wrote in an email the next morning.

Hoover’s emails lay out all the questions that congressional and Justice Department investigators are examining about Fast and Furious.

“This is a major investigation with huge political implications and great potential if all goes well. We must be very prepared if it doesn’t go well,” Hoover wrote in a Oct. 5, 2007 email.

“I would like to discuss the following: Have we discussed the strategy with the US Attorney’s Office re letting guns walk? Do we have this approval in writing? Have we discussed and thought thru the consequences of same? Are we tracking south of the border?” Hoover wrote in the email.

A later email from Anne Marie Paskalis, senior counsel in charge of field operations on Oct. 5 indicated that the U.S. Attorney’s office “is not yet fully on board with this investigation.”

At the time, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona was Daniel Knauss, who was serving on an interim basis after the Bush administration fired Paul Charlton in the course of the U.S. Attorney scandal.

Newell also wrote that the U.S. Embassy, which at the time was being run by Bush appointed ambassador Antonio Garza, “was fully on-board with this and they are a key player in authorizing any such case.”

Another individual told Newell that the ambassador “was not suprised (sic) that the Mexicans missed the load,” according to his email.

Eventually, Newell shut the case down.

“I truly appreciate your enthusiasm about this case and I’m sorry I had to damper that as well as get you jammed up – for that I’m truly sorry,” Newell wrote to ATF assistant director Carson Carroll.

“I think we both understand the extremely positive potential for a case such as this but at this point I’m so frustrated with this whole mess I’m shutting the case down and any further attempts to do something similar,” Newell wrote. “We’re done trying to pursue new and innovative initiatives — it’s not worth the hassle.”

The case sat dormant until prosecutors reviewed the case during the Obama administration and decided to file charges.

Issa’s investigators have had the documents and emails on the 2007 case for months, but he hasn’t said anything much about them. Issa’s office said that pointing to the Bush-era program “reeks of desperation,” but said that he would “get to the bottom” of the Bush-era Operation Wide Receiver.

Hoover is now special agent in charge of ATF’s D.C. field division, while Newell was reassigned to a job at ATF’s D.C. headquarters.

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