WASHINGTON — Congress should press its investigation of a federal gun trafficking operation until the public gets the answers to basic questions about its genesis and purpose, Rep. James Lankford said.
Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, a member of the House committee that has been probing the Fast and Furious operation, also said he is convinced U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder knew more about the operation than he has acknowledged to Congress.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, along with Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, have been pushing for answers since early this year, after guns linked to the Phoenix-
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have told congressional investigators that they were instructed not to intercept guns bought by “straw purchasers,'' even when they knew the guns likely were intended for Mexican drug cartels. Straw purchasers are people who can legally buy the guns and do so for people who cannot.
Allowing guns to “walk,'' according to the agents, directly contradicted their training and traditional techniques.
ATF agent John Dodson, who was removed from the operation after complaining about the strategy and became, according to the House committee, the first whistle-blower, told lawmakers that it was acceptable to allow a straw purchaser to buy a gun and then to follow him to a gang or stash house.
But, he said, “You don't get to go home. You get the gun, is my understanding, what I have been taught.”
In an interview, Lankford said, “I'm not sure that we've connected yet that there was a violation of the law. There were a lot of violations of common sense and of normal investigative practice.
“I've talked to a lot of law enforcement folks, including FBI in Oklahoma City, and all of them are saying, ‘You never do that. … Never allow what you know is a straw purchaser to walk with a gun.' They wouldn't do that with a bag of marijuana, much less with a .50-caliber
According to a report compiled in June by the House committee, the purpose of the operation was to link individual straw purchasers to a gun trafficking network and build a conspiracy case, rather than charging each purchaser with crimes that had relatively mild penalties.
Lankford, who has questioned some of those involved in the operation, said he didn't understand the logic.
“What was the plan?” Lankford said.
“When the guns were recovered, how were you going to connect the dots here? Because you let it get out of your sight and the next time you see the guns was at a crime scene. There's no trail of evidence to connect the two. … That's why I say it's incredibly bad investigative procedures.”
The operation, which began in 2009, lost sight of about 2,500 guns — including AK-47 variants, Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles and .38-caliber revolvers — and an estimated 1,800 are still on the streets, Lankford said; many of guns were recovered at crime scenes.
Lankford said the committee's investigation has not been a partisan “witch hunt.”
He said, “This has been a search for information to (find out) who knew and how are we holding them to account because we can never do this again.”
That search could lead back to the Bush administration as well.
Email exchanges released by the Justice Department revealed that “gunwalking” was also part of a 2006 ATF operation called Wide Receiver that ended in 2007 without any charges filed against straw purchasers, The Associated Press reported last week.
Memos to Holder
Last week, documents released by the U.S. Justice Department showed that the Fast and Furious operation was included in five separate memos given to Holder in 2010; the memos were weekly updates on various operations.
Holder told a House committee in May that he had learned only a few weeks previously about the operation.
“He knew,'' Lankford said, adding that the attorney general may not have been aware of the scope of the operation but that he had to have known about its existence. Even knowing about the operation meant that he knew “gunwalking” was occurring, Lankford said, because Fast and Furious was a gunwalking strategy.
At a news conference on Thursday, President Barack Obama said he had confidence in Holder.
“He's indicated that he was not aware of what was happening in Fast and Furious; certainly I was not,'' the president said.
“And I think both he and I would have been very unhappy if somebody had suggested that guns were allowed to pass through that could have been prevented by the United States of America.”
The Justice Department's Inspector General is investigating. Also last week, the new acting director of the ATF announced a reshuffling of senior leaders.
Grassley questioned the timing of the announcement, given the questions about Holder, and said that “rearranging the chairs on the deck won't make Fast and Furious go away.”