WASHINGTON (AP) - The Justice Department on Friday provided Congress with documents detailing how department officials gave inaccurate information to a U.S. senator in the controversy surrounding Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed law enforcement initiative aimed at dismantling major arms trafficking networks on the Southwest border.
In a letter last February to Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department said that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had not sanctioned the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser and that the agency makes every effort to intercept weapons that have been purchased illegally. In Operation Fast and Furious, both statements turned out to be incorrect.
The Justice Department letter was responding to Grassley's statements that the Senate Judiciary Committee had received allegations the ATF had sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to suspected straw purchasers. Grassley also said there were allegations that two of the assault weapons had been used in a shootout that killed customs agent Brian Terry.
In an email four days later to Justice Department colleagues, then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke in Phoenix said that "Grassley's assertions regarding the Arizona investigation and the weapons recovered" at the "murder scene are based on categorical falsehoods. I worry that ATF will take 8 months to answer this when they should be refuting its underlying accusations right now." That email marked the start of an internal debate in the Justice Department over what and how much to say in response to Grassley's allegations. The fact that there was an ongoing criminal investigation into Terry's murder prompted some at the Justice Department to argue for less disclosure.
Some of what turned out to be incorrect information was emailed to Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division. Breuer sent an email saying "let's help as much as we can" in responding to Grassley.
The emails sent to Capitol Hill on Friday showed that Burke supplied additional incorrect information to the Justice Department's criminal division that ended up being forwarded to Breuer. For example, Burke said that the guns found at the Terry murder scene were purchased at a Phoenix gun shop before Operation Fast and Furious began. In fact, the operation was under way at the time and the guns found at the Terry murder scene were part of the probe. Breuer was one of the recipients of that information. In written comments this week to Grassley, Breuer said that he was on a three-day official trip to Mexico at the time of the Justice Department response and that he was aware of, but not involved in, drafting the Justice Department statements to Grassley. Breuer says he cannot say for sure whether he saw a draft of the letter before it was sent to Grassley.
Where Burke got the inaccurate information is now part of an inquiry conducted by the inspector general's office at the Justice Department.
Burke's information was followed by a three-day struggle in which officials in the office of the deputy attorney general, the criminal division and the ATF came up with what turned out to be an inaccurate response to Grassley's assertions.
The process became so intensive that Breuer aide Jason Weinstein emailed his boss, "The Magna Carta was easier to get done than this was." A copy of the latest draft was attached to the emails.
Initial drafts of the letter reflected the hard tone of Burke's unequivocal assertions that the allegations Grassley was hearing from ATF agents were wrong. Later drafts were more measured, prompting Burke to complain in one email: "Every version gets weaker. We will be apologizing" to Grassley "by tomorrow afternoon." Regarding the allegation that ATF sanctioned the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser, the Justice Department denial was scaled back slightly from "categorically false" to "false." "Why poke the tiger," Lisa Monaco, the top aide to the deputy attorney general, explained in an email to Ron Weich, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs whose signature was on the letter.
In another email, Burke wrote, "By the way, what is so offensive about this whole project" of response "is that Grassley's staff, acting as willing stooges for the Gun Lobby, have attempted to distract from the incredible success in dismantling" Southwest Border "gun trafficking operations" and "not uttering one word of rightful praise and thanks to ATF - but, instead, lobbing this reckless despicable accusation that ATF is complicit in the murder of a fellow federal law enforcement officer."
On Friday night, Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said that "Burke personally apologized to Sen. Grassley's staff for the tone and the content of the emails" after learning from the Justice Department that the emails would be released.
It is unusual for the Justice Department to provide such detail of its internal deliberations as it did on Friday with Congress.
The department turned over 1,364 pages of material after concluding "that we will make a rare exception to the department's recognized protocols and provide you with information related to how the inaccurate information came to be included in the letter," Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is looking into the Obama administration's handling of Operation Fast and Furious.
Operation Fast and Furious involved more than 2,000 weapons that were purchased by straw buyers at Phoenix-area gun stores. Nearly 700 of the Fast and Furious guns have been recovered - 276 in Mexico and 389 in the United States, according to ATF data as of Oct. 20.
Amid probes by Republicans in Congress and the IG, the Justice Department in August replaced Burke, acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson and the lead prosecutor in Operation Fast and Furious.