Aide: Rep. Issa learned of ATF gun-tracking program this year

Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) office on Wednesday said the lawmaker first learned about a controversial gun-tracking program this year, rejecting a report that he had known of it much earlier.

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was not briefed about the "Fast and Furious" operation in a 2010 meeting with officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). 

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Hill criticized a report in the Washington Post on Wednesday that stated Issa was told of the operation at that briefing and raised no objection. Hill depicted the anonymous information used in the article as a last-ditch attempt by Justice Department (DOJ) officials to derail Issa’s investigation into the operation, which may have contributed to the killing of at least one federal agent.  

“The Justice Department right now is packed full of people who had knowledge of this operation and they had their careers ended over it, and there’s people out there that have every incentive to lie or do whatever it takes right now to try to discredit this investigation so that they can save their careers by this investigation not being able to expose everybody who was involved in it,” Hill said.

A spokeswoman with the DOJ objected to Hill’s comments about the department being the source of the Washington Post article’s information and pointed to the DOJ’s role in Issa’s investigation.

“I would take issue with that accusation and note that the Department continues to work with the committee on its requests for information and has provided thousands of documents for review and physically to the committee as part of its investigation,” DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.

Issa has made the fight over the ATF’s operation his first big battle with the Obama administration since taking over as chairman committee, which held a hearing on the issue last week.

Issa has tried for the past three months — through subpoenas and interviews — to find out who authorized the program, which oversaw the sale of weapons to known and suspected straw purchasers for drug cartels without established plans to intercept the guns before they could be used in a crime. In December, two of the guns were found at the Arizona crime scene where ATF Agent Brian Terry was killed. 

The Post’s report, citing “sources familiar with the classified briefing,” stated that Issa had been briefed about the operation in April 2010 and had not expressed opposition to it.

But Hill rejected the substance of the article, saying that the 2010 classified briefing focused on determining accurate statistics for the number of weapons that originated in the U.S. and were later recovered at Mexican crime scenes. At no time did the gun-tracking operation come up, he said.

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“The briefing was not on Fast and Furious for the staff members that I’ve spoken to who were there,” said Hill. “None of them have a recollection of Fast and Furious ever having been mentioned, much less a discussion about federal agents letting criminals walk away with guns that were headed to Mexico.”

Issa called for the resignation of ATF acting Director Kenneth Melson earlier this week, after his office released a series of emails showing the top official’s involvement and knowledge of the operation since March 2010. 

In one of the emails, under the subject heading “Director’s questions,” the supervisor of the operation wrote to the assistant special agent in charge of Phoenix field operations with an Internet protocol address for one of the video monitoring units in a gun store authorized to sell guns to the suspects.

“With this information, acting Director Melson was able to sit at his desk in Washington and — himself — watch a live feed of the straw buyers entering the gun stores to purchase dozens of AK-47 variants,” said a Republican committee statement.

News reports have speculated that Melson might be readying his resignation sometime this week.

Update 6/23 at 12:18 p.m.

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