Top Justice Department officials had extensive knowledge of Operation Fast and Furious, contrary to previous claims, and were in a position to know the key techniques used in the botched operation, particularly gun-walking, according to a new memo released Thursday.
The report, released by the offices of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), came just hours before Attorney General Eric Holder's scheduled testimony to the House Oversight Committee.
Issa -- the chairman of the House Oversight Committee -- and Grassley -- the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee -- are the top GOP lawmakers investigating the failed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program, in which weapons sold to Mexican drug cartels were not tracked, resulting in the deaths of hundreds, including a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
“Main Justice had much greater knowledge of, and involvement in, Fast and Furious than it has previously acknowledged,” the memo said. "The Justice Department’s Criminal Division—including Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer—was in a position to know the key investigative techniques employed."
The memo, based on documents and testimony obtained as part of the congressional probe, directly contradicts previous claims from the Justice Department. Fox News reported:
Emails released show that Kenneth Melson, former acting director of the ATF, contacted Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer and told him that his organization wanted to take a "different approach" to seizing guns going to Mexico.
Breuer responded that it was a "terrific idea" and the department assigned a prosecutor from its Criminal Division to work with the ATF in early 2010.
But in the wake of accusations by Issa against the department, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote Issa on Wednesday, rejecting assertions that Breuer wanted the Phoenix division of ATF to participate in gun-walking
"In light of Assistant Attorney General Breuer's commitment to stemming the flow of guns from the United States into Mexico and his strong ties and collaborative relationships with his counterparts in Mexico, it is inconceivable that his intention was to have guns released into Mexico," Cole wrote.
According to Politico, the memo says that at least one wiretap application approved by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Weinstein included language explaining how ATF was allowing guns to walk:
“Congressional investigators have learned about the information contained in one Wiretap Authorization and Wiretap Affidavit from Fast and Furious that Jason Weinstein signed. The Wiretap Affidavit presented Weinstein with the details of at least two instances in which ATF agents had witnessed illegal straw purchasing and the subsequent transfer of the purchased weapons to other individuals,” said the memo.
Weinstein told investigators that it was his “general practice” not to read the underlying affidavits in such cases but to rely on a so-called cover memo prepared by another Justice Department office. He has said he was not aware of the “gun-walking” tactic in Fast and Furious at that time and would have acted quickly to end it if he had been.
The GOP investigators’ memo does not quote from the wiretap applications, which are under seal pursuant to federal law and a federal court order, nor do the Congressional aides say where they obtained such details.
The memo concludes by stating it's very clear that "the Department is circling the wagons to protect its political appointees." Last month, a senior federal prosecutor in Arizona said he would be asserting his Fifth Amendment rights and not testifying in the probe.
Holder's scheduled testimony before the House Oversight Committee comes as Issa is threatening to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress if the Justice Department refuses to turn over additional documents requested by the committee, CNN reported.
In anticipation of Holder's testimony, the Justice Department released portions of his prepared remarks, in which he declared allowing guns to walk to be "wholly unacceptable."
"Today, I reaffirm my commitment to ensuring that these flawed tactics are never used again," Holder's remarks state. "And I reiterate my willingness to work with Congress to address the public safety and national security crisis along our southwest border that has taken far too many lives."