The head of ATF recently warned employees that they will face "consequences" if they don't "respect the chain of command," in what Republican lawmakers are decrying as an "ominous message" meant to frighten would-be whistle-blowers in the wake of the Operation Fast and Furious scandal.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., fired off a letter Wednesday to Acting Director B. Todd Jones saying the message "could be interpreted as a threat" and urging him to clarify.
"It was scary," Issa told Fox News on Thursday, in reference to Jones' video message to employees.
In the July 9 video message, Jones touched on a topic he described as "choices and consequences." By that, Jones said, he was talking about "organizational discipline" and the need for workers to "play by the rules" -- embedded in the warning was the line about properly raising internal concerns.
"Choices and consequences means simply that if you make poor choices, that if you don't abide by the rules, that if you don't respect the chain of command, if you don't find the appropriate way to raise your concerns to your leadership, there will be consequences, because we cannot tolerate -- we cannot tolerate -- an undisciplined organization," he said.
Issa told Fox News it's obvious what Jones was talking about.
"What it appears to be is a not-so-veiled threat telling (ATF employees) not to do what they did to expose Fast and Furious," Issa said, referring to whistle-blowers who went outside the chain of command to alert lawmakers to problems with the anti-gunrunning operation that let thousands of guns "walk" into Mexico. "He's basically saying 'no, keep it in the chain'."
ATF spokeswoman Ginger Colbrun, though, said the video clip was "taken out of context."
She said the message was one of eight internal videos released since March that address topics ranging from "trust" to "mission" to "morale."
This one dealt with "choices and consequences," but she said it wasn't meant to "discourage" legally protected activities.
"It was directed at employees who violate the rules. It was not directed at those with protected disclosure," she said. Colbrun said the agency would coordinate with the Department of Justice on responding to the lawmakers' letter.
In their letter to Jones, Issa and Grassley wrote that ATF employees must know about their legally protected right to talk to Congress "free and clear of agency interference or retaliation."
"Your ominous message -- which could be interpreted as a threat -- is likely to have a major chilling effect on ATF employees exercising their rights to contact Congress," they wrote. "Therefore, it needs to be clarified."
FoxNews.com's Judson Berger contributed to this report.