WASHINGTON – The Justice Department is tightening procedures for responding to information requests from Congress in the aftermath of a troubled arms trafficking investigation.
In Operation Fast and Furious, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed hundreds of weapons to flow across the border into Mexico.
The Justice Department told three congressional committees in a letter Friday night that it has improved coordination between agents and their managers in carrying out arms trafficking investigations.
Attorney General Eric Holder probably will face questions about the changes when he testifies Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That committee has been investigating the department's mistakes in the probe since early last year.
In a letter last February to Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the department said that ATF had not authorized the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser and that the agency makes every effort to intercept weapons that have been purchased illegally.
Yet in Operation Fast and Furious, both statements turned out to be incorrect because the ATF office in Phoenix, Ariz., had undertaken a risky tactic known as "gun-walking" in an unsuccessful effort to track small-time illicit gun buyers to the heads of major arms trafficking networks.
Many of the guns wound up at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S., including the scene of a killing near Nogales, Ariz., where U.S. border agent Brian Terry was slain. Two guns connected to Fast and Furious were found at the scene of Terry's murder.
Some ATF agents with direct knowledge of what had gone on with Operation Fast and Furious were talking to Grassley's office. In contrast, the Justice Department was relying on information from top ATF officials in Washington and the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, who all incorrectly denied that ATF was allowing weapons purchases by "straw" buyers to transport guns into Mexico.
In the letter to Congress on Friday night, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the department must solicit information directly from employees with detailed personal knowledge of the subject matter at issue and consult records relevant to the inquiry if such records are available.
"Recognize that, in some instances, the employees with the most relevant information may already have made protected disclosures on the subject to Congress or others," the letter said.
The department emphasized its commitment to protecting the rights of whistleblowers, but added that the Whistleblower Protection Act does not bar the department from seeking relevant information directly from employees who have made protected disclosures.
Doing so, the letter said, is necessary "to ensure the accuracy and completeness" of information provided to Congress.
The ATF has expanded the opportunities for employees to raise work-related concerns and stressed the need for supervisory level officials to be receptive to those concerns, Cole's letter adds. In other changes, the ATF:
— told all of its agents that they must take all reasonable steps to prevent a firearm's criminal misuse and that early intervention may be necessary to prevent trafficking.
— has improved coordination between field agents and headquarters personnel in Washington.
— engaged in training for agents in Arizona and New Mexico with a renewed emphasis on intercepting illicit weapons shipments.
— is giving agents a direct line of communication to the agency's second-in-command.