AP Exclusive: Second Bush-era gun-smuggling probe

A second Bush administration gun-trafficking investigation has surfaced using the same controversial tactic for which congressional Republicans have been criticizing the Obama administration.

The tactic, called "gun walking," is already under investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general and by congressional Republicans, who have criticized the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama for letting it happen in an operation called "Fast and Furious".

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show how in a 2007 investigation in Phoenix, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — depending on Mexican authorities to follow up — let guns "walk" across the border in an effort to identify higher-ups in gun networks. Justice Department policy has long required that illicit arms shipments be intercepted whenever possible.

The 2007 probe 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, according to the emails. The 2007 probe was relatively small — involving over 200 weapons, just a dozen of which ended up in Mexico as a result of gun-walking. Fast and Furious involved over 2,000 weapons, some 1,400 of which have not been recovered and an unknown number of which wound up in Mexico.

Earlier this month, it was disclosed that the gun-walking tactic didn't begin under Obama, but was also used in 2006 under his predecessor, George W. Bush. The probe, Operation Wide Receiver, was carried out by ATF's Tucson, Ariz., office and resulted in hundreds of guns being transferred to suspected arms traffickers.

The older gun-walking cases now coming to light from the Bush administration illustrate how ATF — particularly its Phoenix field division, encompassing Tucson, Ariz., as well as Phoenix — has struggled for years to counter criticism that its normal seize-and-arrest tactics never caught any trafficking kingpins and were little more than a minor irritant that didn't keep U.S. guns out of the hands of Mexican gangs.

Even those cases against low-level straw buyers are problematic for the ATF. There is no federal firearms trafficking law, making it difficult to prosecute cases. So law enforcement agencies resort to a wide variety of laws that do not carry stringent penalties — particularly for straw buyers.

Documents and emails relating to the 2007 case were produced or made available months ago to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, though the Republicans on the panel have said little about them. In the congressional investigation, committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has focused on the questions of what Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, knew about Fast and Furious, and when he knew it.

The 2007 probe began when an ATF agent identified several suspects from Mexico who bought weapons from a gun shop in Phoenix over a span of several months.

According to the emails obtained by AP, 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 emails from the 2007 probe show there was concern that ATF in Arizona had engaged in a tactic that resulted in the guns disappearing inside Mexico.

"Have we discussed the strategy with the US Attorney's Office re letting the guns walk?" headquarters official William Hoover asked in an Oct. 4, 2007 email to William Newell, then ATF's special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division.

"Do we have this approval in writing?" asked Hoover. "Have we discussed and thought thru the consequences of same? Are we tracking south of the border? Same re US Attorney's Office. Did we find out why they missed the hand-off of the vehicle?"

At the time, Hoover was assistant director for the office of field operations. He was ATF's deputy director from May 2009 to September 2011 and is now special agent in charge of ATF's Washington, D.C., field division.

"Would like your opinion on a verbal approval from the US Attorney in Phoenix re the firearms walking," Hoover emailed ATF's senior legal counsel for field operations on Oct. 5, 2007. "This is a major investigation with huge political implications and great potential if all goes well. We must also be very prepared if it doesn't go well."

The lawyer, Anne Marie Paskalis, wrote back: "Sure. We will work this out. Perhaps a conference call ... to discuss what if any assurances they have received from USAO that this investigation is operating within the law and doj (Department of Justice) guidelines."

On Oct. 5, Hoover wrote Carson Carroll, then ATF's assistant director for enforcement programs and services at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., saying "I do not want any firearms to go South until further notice. I expect a full briefing paper on my desk Tuesday morning from SAC Newell with every question answered. I will not allow this case to go forward until we have written documentation from the US Attorney's office re full and complete buy in. I do not want anyone briefed on this case until I approve the information. This includes anyone in Mexico."

On Oct. 6, Newell, the Phoenix SAC, wrote Carroll: "I think we both understand the extremely positive potential for a case such as this but at this point I'm so frustrated with this whole mess I'm shutting the case down and any further attempts to do something similar. We're done trying to pursue new and innovative initiatives — it's not worth the hassle."

Newell, as the special agent in charge of the Phoenix division, was at the center of Operation Fast and Furious. He has acknowledged that mistakes were made in the agency's handling of the operation, and has been reassigned to a Washington headquarters job.