WASHINGTON – A briefing paper prepared for Attorney General Michael Mukasey during the Bush administration in 2007 outlined failed attempts by federal agents to track illicitly purchased guns across the border into Mexico and stressed the need for U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials to work together on such efforts using a tactic that now is generating controversy.
The information contained in one paragraph of a lengthy Nov. 16, 2007, document marks the first known instance of an attorney general being given information about the tactic known as "gun-walking." It since has become controversial amid a probe by congressional Republicans criticizing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for using it during the Obama administration in an arms-trafficking investigation called Operation Fast and Furious that focused on several Phoenix-area gun shops.
Though the briefing paper for Mukasey does not use the term "gun-walking," ATF officials at the time referred to the failed attempts in that way. The tactic — following suspected low-level "straw" buyers of guns instead of arresting them right after purchase — is aimed at identifying and bringing charges against gun-trafficking ringleaders, who have long escaped federal prosecution. Justice Department policy long has required that illicit arms shipments be intercepted whenever possible.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to the panel's Republican chairman, Darrell Issa of California, asking that he call Mukasey to testify about his knowledge of the program.
"Given the significant questions raised by the disclosures in these documents, our committee's investigation will not be viewed as credible, even-handed, or complete unless we hear directly from Attorney General Mukasey," Cummings wrote.
Headlined "Meeting of the attorney general with Mexican Attorney General Medina Mora," the briefing paper informed Mukasey that the tactic had been tried unsuccessfully but that the ATF wanted to try again and wanted Mukasey to persuade Mexico's attorney general to provide a team of corruption-free Mexican agents who would assist in the effort. Perhaps implied but not fully detailed in this document was the reason for the failure — that Mexican authorities south of the border fell down on the job, claiming they didn't see the vehicle carrying the guns that the ATF agents had alerted them to.
The briefing paper for Mukasey — dated two days after he was installed as attorney general — was among hundreds of pages of documents that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaed in his investigation of Operation Fast and Furious. The Justice Department turned over the material this week to the Issa-chaired House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In Section G, titled "Arms Trafficking," the briefing paper for Mukasey states that "of particular importance, ATF has recently worked jointly with Mexico on the first-ever attempt to have a controlled delivery of weapons being smuggled into Mexico by a major arms trafficker." It adds: "While the first attempts at this controlled delivery have not been successful, the investigation is ongoing, and ATF would like to expand the possibility of such joint investigations and controlled deliveries — since only then will it be possible to investigate an entire smuggling network, rather than arresting simply a single smuggler."
"To that end, it is essential that a Mexican vetted unit be assigned to work with ATF in this regard," the document states. "ATF's attache in Mexico City has briefed Attorney General Medina Mora on this attempted controlled delivery, and stressed the importance of such a vetted unit being assigned," the paper states.
The briefing paper said it was the "first-ever attempt," but an email by an ATF official disputed that.
"I am going to ask DOJ to change 'first ever.' ... There have been cases in the past where we have walked guns," ATF official Carson Carroll wrote in an email to ATF headquarters official William Hoover, the assistant director for field operations.
Carroll's email did not elaborate, but a month ago, Justice Department documents released in the probe of Fast and Furious disclosed the first of two Bush-era probes, Operation Wide Receiver, which was carried out by ATF's Tucson, Ariz., office beginning in 2006. In it, several hundred weapons wound up in the hands of arms traffickers.
The AP contacted Mukasey's law office Thursday in New York about the briefing paper, but the former attorney general did not respond to questions about his recollection of the document or what, if any, action it produced.
The language in the briefing paper to Mukasey referred to the second of two Bush-era probes and covered events that had occurred in that second probe in the preceding two months — specifically, a probe that began when an ATF agent identified several suspects from Mexico who were buying large numbers of weapons from a gun shop in Phoenix.
ATF emails from the 2007 probe obtained last month by the AP show there was concern inside the agency that its Phoenix office had engaged in gun-walking that resulted in guns disappearing inside Mexico — and that perhaps the tactic should be stopped.
"Have we discussed the strategy with the US Attorney's Office re letting the guns walk?" Hoover, the headquarters official, asked in an Oct. 4, 2007, email to William Newell, then ATF's special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division.
The probe ran into trouble after agents saw the same suspects buy additional weapons from the same store and followed the suspects south toward the border at Nogales, Ariz., on Sept. 27, 2007. ATF officials notified the government of Mexico to be on the lookout. ATF agents saw the vehicle the suspects were driving reach the Mexican side of the border, but 20 minutes later, Mexican law enforcement authorities informed ATF that they did not see the vehicle.
The 2007 probe referred to in the briefing paper for Mukasey operated out of the same ATF office that more recently ran the flawed Operation Fast and Furious. Both probes resulted in weapons disappearing across the border into Mexico. The 2007 probe was relatively small — involving more than 200 weapons, just a dozen of which ended up in Mexico as a result of gun-walking. Fast and Furious involved more than 2,000 weapons. Nearly 700 of the Fast and Furious guns have been recovered — 276 in Mexico and 389 in the United States, according to ATF data through Oct. 20, the latest available.
According to ATF data, 94,000 weapons have been recovered in the past five years in Mexico, 64,000 of them traced to the United States.
Controversy erupted over Operation Fast and Furious after two assault rifles purchased by a now-indicted small-time buyer under scrutiny in the operation turned up at a shootout in Arizona where Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed.