Under fire for losing track of weapons that turned up at crime scenes along the Southwest border, the Justice Department has taken the extraordinary step of formally withdrawing an inaccurate letter about the episode that it sent to Congress earlier this year.
Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole sent nearly 1,400 pages of emails and other documents to Capitol Hill late Friday afternoon that lay bare the raw and sometimes cringe-worthy process by which the letter was drafted. The materials contain clues into how misleading information about the botched gun trafficking operation made it into a Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Congress that department leaders have since acknowledged was false. . .
Here are a few of the new disclosures contained in the documents:
— The basis for the inaccurate statements in the letter appears to have originated among people in the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona and among ATF officials earlier this year, according to the new letter to Congress. Notes taken by a Justice Department legislative affairs person who helped prepare a response to Congress include statements that found their way into the faulty Feb. 4 letter, including: "ATF doesn't let guns walk" and "we always try to interdict weapons purchased illegally." Also at the meeting were the ATF's top congressional liaison and a high level deputy named Billy Hoover. At other times, the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona passed along inaccurate information about the length of the gun trafficking operation and the timing of when guns were purchased.
— Jason Weinstein, a senior aide in the Justice Department's criminal division, played a key role in drafting the February 2011 letter. Weinstein, who had served as a highly regarded prosecutor in Baltimore and New York for a decade before taking a political appointment at the Justice Department, already had come under scrutiny from Republican lawmakers. They say he had approved the use of wiretaps in the Obama administration's Fast and Furious operation and he should have dug deeper. The department has acknowledged that the operation sent as many as 2,000 weapons into Mexico but failed to follow them. Many of those guns later ended up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including near the body of slain Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
Justice officials say Weinstein relied on the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office in drafting the letter.
— Justice Department Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer received draft copies of the Feb. 4, 2011 letter from Weinstein and forwarded those messages to his personal email account, which he didn't share in recent congressional testimony about questionable ATF tactics in gun cases. However, Breuer writes in new correspondence to Congress Friday that "I cannot say for sure whether I saw a draft of the letter...I have no recollection of having done so and given that I was on official travel that week and given the scope of my duties as Assistant Attorney General, I think it is exceedingly unlikely that I did so." Breuer apologized last month for failing to make a "connection" between out-of-bounds strategies he discovered in a Bush-era case and Fast and Furious.
— Former Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, who resigned in August as the gun trafficking scandal intensified, repeatedly urged Justice officials in Washington to "push back" against "categorical falsehoods" coming from whistleblowers inside the ATF and from members of Congress. Burke also had some choice words for Sen. Grassley's staff, which he said were "acting as willing stooges for the Gun Lobby" and "lobbing this reckless despicable accusation" about ATF. In another message, he tells a colleague that the congressional accusations are "among the lowest acts I have ever seen in politics." Burke may have been relying on aides in his office, who more closely supervised the day to day activities of the ATF in the gun trafficking operation.
"Dennis Burke is a standup guy. He provided what he believed to be accurate information to the Department of Justice, as he always does," said Chuck Rosenberg, an attorney for Burke.
— Drafts of the Feb. 4th letter reached the highest levels of the Justice Department, as aides to the Deputy Attorney General suggested fixes to the language and prodded subordinates to check the facts. In one email chain, a deputy named Lisa Monaco advised against using adjectives such as "categorically" and asked, "why poke the tiger" when it comes to communications with Capitol Hill.
Roll Call: The Burke & Billy Hoover show.
The documents released today show tangential involvement by Breuer in preparing the Feb. 4 letter.
“Let me know what’s happening with this,” he wrote in a Feb. 1 email asking for an update.
Jason Weinstein, Breuer’s deputy, responded by saying he had revised the initial draft, written by Burton, to “make it a little tougher.”
The documents show Weinstein was intimately involved in drafting the letter, urging repeated changes to strengthen the tone of its denial over objections from the Office of Legislative Affairs headed by Weich.
Weinstein was also far more familiar than Breuer with the details of Operation Wide Receiver, according to documents released in October. For instance, Weinstein told colleagues in an April 12, 2010, email that the ATF should be “embarrassed that they let this many guns walk” in Wide Receiver.
According to Breuer, Weinstein is now also expressing regret about not connecting the dots between Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious.
“Weinstein has expressed to me that, in hindsight, he wishes he had not relied on those assertions and that, because he did rely so heavily on them, he viewed, incorrectly, the misguided tactics used in Operation Wide Receiver — which resulted in the ATF losing control of guns that then crossed the border into Mexico — as having no relation to the allegations that were being made about Operation Fast and Furious,” Breuer said today in a written statement to Congressional investigators.
The day before the letter was sent to Grassley, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General raised concerns about the scope of the denial it contained.
“In the 2nd full para[graph] — we say ‘categorically false’ — obviously we want to be 300% sure we can make such a ‘categorical’ statement,” Lisa Monaco wrote in an email after reviewing a draft version of the letter. “I’ve developed an aversion to adjectives and oversight letters,” she explained in a later email.
The language was ultimately removed.
Over the course of the letter being prepared, Burke vehemently argued the department should more vigorously deny the allegations.
“What is so offensive about this whole project 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 ... but, instead, lobbing this reckless despicable accusation that ATF is complicit in the murder of a fellow federal law enforcement officer,” he wrote in a Feb. 4 email.
“Well said Dennis. Thank you!” Hoover replied.
However, guns found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder were eventually connected to the Fast and Furious operation.
Burke's anti-gun mindset.
“No commentary by Grassley on the lax laws, nor greedy gun shop owners, nor careless straw purchasers, and not boo about the evil gun traffickers for the Cartels. Nope. Just demonize ATF w/ a strategically-timed repulsive letter e-mailed to the entire press world before we ever saw it,” Burke wrote.
Discussing the Department’s response to a letter that Grassley sent to the agency concerning the allegation that a gun from the ATF was used to kill Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, Burke continued: “I sat there during the press conference on this case wondering how the Gun Lobby would counter the American public’ (sic) exposure to the legality of people buying 20-30 AK-47s during one purchase [with] no reporting requirement. Well, they figured out [their] counter. Never crossed my [mind] they would stoop this low — and now we are playing defense [with] this low-tone response.”
CBS: Justice Dept. Fast and Furious emails show disagreement over response to Grassley
More than 1,000 pages of frenzied email exchanges were fired back and forth among Justice Department officials, as they weighed how to respond to initial inquires about the gunwalker scandal. Today, the agency turned over those subpoenaed records to Congress in advance of a hearing next week with Attorney General Eric Holder.
PICTURES: ATF "Gunwalking" scandal timeline
The emails are marked by intra-office disagreement over how vigorously to defend the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) amid questions from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. ATF whistleblowers had told Sen. Grassley that their own agency had let thousands of weapons "walk" into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. They also told Grassley that two of the weapons involved in the case, known as "Fast and Furious," were used at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
"Those [allegations] are the most salacious, and the most damaging to ATF, both short-and long-term," writes Deputy Asst. Attorney General Jason Weinstein to Justice Department Special Counsel Faith Burton on Feb. 2, 2011.
Weinstein also wrote ATF Acting Director Ken Melson, calling the gunwalking allegations "terribly damaging to ATF," and pushing for "a more forceful rebuttal" than what the Justice Department was considering.
Read the Internal Justice Department Emails
Additional Justice Department Emails
Special Counsel Burton disagreed, telling Weinstein: "Understand the concerns about pushing back on the Terry issue, but think presents significant risks and we should discuss that together in person if nec."
"What 'risk'?" U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke asked the Justice Department's Weinstein. Burke's office oversaw Fast and Furious.
"They're worried if we engage in a detailed discussion of this case with Grassley's staff, that they'll just keep pushing for more and more information. But I think we need to come down hard and firm and say that the allegation is BS," Weinstein tells Burke.