By Jordy Yager - 10/04/11 10:56 AM EDT
Attorney General Eric Holder was issued multiple memos from senior Justice Department officials about a controversial gun-tracking operation months before he said he first became aware it, according to documents.
In response to questions from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on May 3, 2011, Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee that he only recently learned about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) Operation Fast and Furious.
“I’m not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks,” said Holder at the time.
But in a memo from November 2010 Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer notified Holder about a sealed indictment against alleged gun traffickers in Arizona by the DOJ’s organized crime and gang section.
Breuer wrote that the indictment would remain sealed “until another investigation, Phoenix-based ‘Operation Fast and Furious,’ is ready for takedown.”
And in a July 2010 memo from Michael Walther, the director of the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), Holder was notified that NDIC and a Phoenix drug enforcement task force would assist the ATF with an investigation of a suspected gun trafficker, Manuel Celis-Acosta, being run under Operation Fast and Furious.
“This investigation, initiated in September 2009 in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Phoenix police department, involves a Phoenix-based firearms trafficking ring,” the memo states.
“Celis-Acosta and [redacted] straw purchasers are responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug trafficking cartels.”
DOJ officials told CBS News that the case being discussed in the memos was not Fast and Furious, but instead a different gun-tracking case that was started before Holder became attorney general. Operation Wide Receiver was initiated in 2006 and focused on selling firearms to known and suspected straw purchasers in the Tucson, Ariz., region.
The DOJ officials also told CBS that Holder misunderstood Issa’s question and that he was generally aware of Fast and Furious, but he was not privy to the details of the operation.
A former DOJ official told Fox News that Holder, as attorney general, receives dozens of memos every week and most likely does not have the time to read through every one of them.
Earlier this year ATF agents testified to Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, that they were instructed to monitor the sale of the firearms to known and suspected straw buyers — a traditionally discouraged technique in the ATF known as letting guns “walk” — but were ordered not to provide the guns with adequate surveillance to successfully track them.
Instead, agents were told to trace the serial numbers on guns found at subsequent raids and crime scenes back to the serial numbers of the guns sold under the operation, and try to make their cases that way.
A series of emails written in October 2010 between Jason Weinstein, the deputy assistant attorney general of DOJ’s criminal division, and James Trusty, the acting chief of the DOJ’s organized crime and gang section, reveals a fluid knowledge of the operation.
“It’s not going to be any big surprise that a bunch of US guns are being used in MX [Mexico], so I’m not sure how much grief we get for ‘guns walking,’ ” wrote Trusty to Weinstein. “It may be more like, ‘Finally, they’re going after people who sent guns down there … ' ”
In a February letter to Holder inquiring about allegations over the operation that had been brought to his attention from whistleblowers, Grassley referenced a letter the DOJ had sent him earlier that month refuting any assertions that it had let guns “walk.”
“The Department [of Justice] categorically denied that the ATF ‘knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser ... ’ The Department said the ATF makes ‘every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation into Mexico,’ ” the letter reads.
President Obama has denied knowing about the operation until it was made public by news organizations. Holder has ordered the DOJ’s inspector general to investigate the matter, and in August the acting head of the ATF stepped down.