The Justice Department sent nearly 500 pages of documents to Republican lawmakers Thursday that suggest the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives may have used questionable tactics and lost track of American-made weapons in a gun trafficking investigation on the Mexican border as early as 2006.
The documents sent to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) could add a new dimension to a political controversy that's raged on Capitol Hill for a year. Issa and other Republican lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of acting recklessly by losing track of almost 2,000 guns on the Southwest border in a botched ATF operation called Fast and Furious. Two of those weapons were recovered near the body of slain U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
The newly released email messages and briefing papers suggest there may be similarities between the Obama operation "Fast and Furious" and an earlier effort during the Bush administration to target the flow of guns into Mexico. The papers include several communications between ATF supervisors and Justice Department prosecutors in Arizona who were trying to build a case against "a very powerful, aggressive and violent" Mexican drug cartel in an earlier operation dubbed "Wide Receiver."
A senior Obama administration Justice Department official who briefed reporters on the documents said the papers show law enforcement officers in the Bush years could have filed criminal conspiracy and false statements charges against lower level figures in the gun trafficking operation, but they decided to watch and wait until they could move higher up the chain of command.
"We want the... manufacturing and distribution pieces also – we want it all," an ATF official wrote in March 2006.
The case ultimately languished in the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona until the Obama administration sent help from Washington D.C. and indictments were handed down in May and October 2010. Six people have been convicted in connection with Wide Receiver, the senior Justice Department official said.
The new disclosures could be featured in a Feb. 2 hearing where Attorney General Eric Holder will square off against Issa over the ATF failures. The last time the two men met on Capitol Hill, fireworks erupted, when Issa likened Holder to the Nixon era Attorney General John Mitchell and Holder reached back to the era of Joseph McCarthy and asked Issa whether he "had any shame."