Rep. Darrell Issa is launching a congressional investigation into the Drug Enforcement Administration following claims that the agency helped drug cartels launder money -- an operation the lawmaker said bears striking resemblance to the failed "Fast and Furious" anti-gunrunning probe.
Both operations were run by agencies within the Justice Department. Fast and Furious, which Issa and other lawmakers have been investigating all year, was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The alleged money-laundering operation was run by the DEA.
While Fast and Furious was designed to allow federal agents to trace the flow of illegal weapons to the Mexican cartels, the DEA operation reportedly was designed to allow agents to trace the flow of money.
"It looks like it's the same sort of a program," Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told Fox News on Tuesday.
Issa wrote Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday urging him to quickly brief his staff on the DEA program, in advance of a hearing Thursday where Holder is set to testify.
"It is imperative that Congress be apprised of the true dimensions of these alleged operations immediately," Issa wrote. In a separate statement, Issa's office described the new congressional probe as an offshoot of the Fast and Furious investigation.
"We're following the evidence where it goes," Issa told Fox News.
But he posed sharp questions about the wisdom of the DEA program.
"Money is the lifeblood of the drug trade. With money they can corrupt the system in Mexico," he said, questioning whether Mexican authorities were fully aware of the DEA operation.
The DEA operation was detailed in a New York Times story published Sunday.
Anonymous officials described an effort by U.S. agents to launder or smuggle "millions of dollars" in drug money in order to monitor the flow of cash to and from the cartels in Mexico. One official told the Times there was "close supervision." Another official said the Americans worked with Mexican agents on the investigation. Officials told the newspaper that the DEA tried to seize as much as they laundered, in part through arrests at pickup locations.
The article also described how officials had to obtain Justice Department clearance to launder more than $10 million at a time, something that was approved many times.
The DEA issued a statement Tuesday defending its operations.
"The DEA has well-established mechanisms for coordinating and approving activities associated with the fight against money laundering," the DEA said. "As a result of this cooperation, DEA has seized illicit transnational criminal organization money all around the world through our partnership with law enforcement."
The DEA said it had been working "collaboratively" with Mexico to fight money laundering "for years."
"As part of that collaboration, DEA works with Mexican authorities to gather and use information about these criminal organizations to counter the threats they pose to both of our countries," the DEA said, adding that the joint investigations "have led to important advances and detentions in each country. The cooperation between the United States and Mexico is based on principles of shared responsibility, mutual trust and respect for the jurisdiction of each country."
A Justice official said Tuesday that the department is "reviewing the letter" from Issa, and noted that the program in question has been in existence "for quite some time."
The Times said the DEA was running similar operations in other countries but only started to expand it into Mexico "in the past few years."
Issa indicated he's skeptical, particularly after the Justice Department on Friday gave Congress hundreds of pages of documents showing how Justice officials initially provided inaccurate information about Fast and Furious.
"The first answer you get from this Justice Department doesn't have a high credibility," Issa said Tuesday, adding that Thursday's hearing will mark "the first time we're expecting to see the real truth" regarding Fast and Furious.
Issa, in his letter to Holder, said the DEA allegations, "if true, raise further unsettling questions" about the risks taken on by the Justice Department.
"The existence of such a program again calls your leadership into question. The managerial structure you have implemented lacks appropriate operational safeguards to prevent the implementation of such dangerous schemes," Issa wrote.
Holder has testified that he only learned of Fast and Furious earlier this year.