For the first time, the Justice Department has made public a series of sensitive messages that passed to the highest levels of the agency within hours of an ambush that killed a U.S. border patrol agent along the Southwest border in December 2010, igniting a national scandal over a gun trafficking investigation gone wrong.
Justice officials sent the documents to Congress late Friday evening, only a few days before Attorney General Eric Holder is set to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The email messages show the former top federal prosecutor in Arizona, Dennis Burke, notifying an aide to Holder via email on Dec. 15, 2010 that agent Brian Terry had been wounded and died. "Tragic," responds the aide, Monty Wilkinson. "I've alerted the AG, the acting Deputy Attorney General..."
Only a few minutes later, Wilkinson emailed again, saying, "Please provide any additional details as they become available to you."
Burke then delivered another piece of bad news: "The guns found in the desert near the murder [sic] ... officer connect back to the investigation we were going to talk about — they were AK-47s purchased at a Phoenix gun store."
That investigation, dubbed Fast and Furious, was supposed to follow U.S. weapons into the hands of kingpins in the violent Sinaloa Mexico drug cartel, building a big case against the gangs. Instead, it cost Burke his job, got the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reassigned, and has prompted multiple federal probes by Congress and the department's own inspector general.
The Justice Department also sent a letter to lawmakers Friday night outlining several changes they had made within their own ranks and at the ATF: from requiring additional oversight in cases that involve wiretaps and confidential informants to extra procedures at the ATF for putting weapons purchases under surveillance to a realignment at the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix and the ATF itself.
The new documents are certain to stoke the fires among congressional Republicans, who have questioned what the attorney general knew about the botched investigation and asked why the chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, Lanny Breuer, didn't do more when he found out about other questionable tactics used by ATF in gun trafficking probes in the Bush administration.
In a meeting with Mexican government officials in February 2011, for instance, Breuer "suggested allowing straw purchasers cross into Mexico so [police] can arrest and [prosecutors] can convict. Such coordinated activities between the US and Mexico may send a strong message to arms traffickers."
A Justice official, speaking on background, said Breuer's proposal involved coordination between the governments and didn't contemplate agents losing track of guns, as happened in the Fast and Furious debacle.
A few days after the meeting between Breuer and Mexican authorities, the department's attache to Mexico raised this issue, according to an email: "there is an inherent risk in allowing weapons to pass from the U.S. to Mexico. The possibility of the [government of Mexico] not seizing the weapons, and the weapons being used to commit a crime in Mexico."
The attorney general, in testimony to the House and Senate last year, said he feared the Justice Department could be living with the consequences of more than 1,000 guns connected to Fast and Furious that remain unaccounted for years to come.