Image: Dennis K. Burke
Matt York  /  AP file
United States Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke speaks behind a cache of seized weapons Tuesday, Jan 25, 2011 in Phoenix.
NBC News and news services
updated 10/5/2011 4:29:12 PM ET 2011-10-05T20:29:12

The federal government under the Bush administration ran an operation that allowed hundreds of guns to be transferred to suspected arms traffickers — the same tactic that congressional Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama's administration for using, two federal law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and other Republicans have been hammering the Obama Justice Department over the practice known as "letting guns walk." The congressional target has been Operation Fast and Furious, which was designed to track small-time gun buyers at several Phoenix-area gun shops up the chain to make cases against major weapons traffickers. In the process, federal agents lost track of many of the more than 2,000 guns linked to the operation.

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When Bush, a Republican, was president, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Tucson, Ariz., used a similar enforcement tactic in a program it called Operation Wide Receiver. The fact that there were two such ATF investigations years apart in separate administrations raises the possibility that agents in still other cases may have allowed guns to "walk."

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For months, Issa and other Republicans have focused on whether Attorney General Eric Holder misled Congress, suggesting that he knew more than he has admitted about Operation Fast and Furious.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called on Obama to direct the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate. Smith ssaid that newly released department documents suggest the attorney general knew about Operation Fast and Furious as early as July 2010. Smith noted that Holder had told Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, in March of this year that he had recently learned of "concerns" about the program and told Smith's committee in May that he had probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time "over the last few weeks."

Holder's testimony this year "was consistent and truthful," responded Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. She said Holder became aware of the questionable tactics in early 2011, when ATF agents first raised them publicly. None of the handful of entries in 2010 regarding Fast and Furious suggested there was anything amiss with that investigation requiring leadership to take corrective action or commit to memory this particular operation, Schmaler added.

Video: Holder's 'Fast and Furious' testimony under scrutiny (on this page)

Federal law enforcement officials familiar with the matter say Operation Wide Receiver began in 2006 after the agency received information about a suspicious purchase of firearms. The investigation concluded in 2007 without any charges being filed.

After Obama took office, the Justice Department reviewed Wide Receiver and discovered that ATF had permitted guns to be transferred to suspected gun traffickers, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the practice is under investigation by Congress and the Justice Department inspector general's office.

In a statement, Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that "whether it's Operation Fast and Furious, Operation Wide Receiver, or both, it's clear that guns were walked, and people high in the Justice Department knew about it. There's no excuse for walking guns, and if there are more operations like this, Congress and the American people need to know."

Following the discovery that agents in Tucson let the guns "walk," a tactic which has long been against Justice Department policy, the department under Obama decided to bring charges against those who had come under investigation in 2006.

To date in Wide Receiver, nine people have been charged with making false statements in acquisition of firearms and illicit transfer, shipment or delivery of firearms. Two of the nine defendants have pleaded guilty and a plea hearing is scheduled for Oct. 13 for two other defendants.

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ATF has released the details of a house-cleaning at headquarters ordered by the new acting director in the wake of the operation.

ATF today released a list of eleven senior staff changes made today by Acting Director B. Todd Jones, which, he is making clear, is a reaction to the bureau's Fast and Furious operation.

Jones, who's also the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, told reporters at ATF this afternoon that he has put an entirely new executive team in place, "to move ATF forward in its mission to fight violent crime and protect the American people."

Among the changes are new people in the following jobs: deputy director, assistant director for field operations, assistant director for intelligence,  assistant director of the office of professional responsibility, assistant director of the office of management, and deputy chief counsel.

Jones was recently appointed to lead ATF following the departure of the former Acting Director Ken Melson, who was urged out by Holder.

Last October, Jason Weinstein, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division, raised concerns about investigative methods in Operation Wide Receiver and about the timing of announcing indictments in both Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious.

"It's a tricky case given the number of guns that have walked, but it is a significant set of prosecutions," Weinstein wrote in a Justice Department email turned over to Congress, which released the document.

Weinstein raised the question in asking whether Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general who runs the Justice Department's criminal division, should participate in a news conference when indictments in Fast and Furious and the case resulting from Wide Receiver were unsealed.

The two federal law enforcement officials said Weinstein's language about "a tricky case" referred to Wide Receiver, not Fast and Furious.

In an emailed reply to Weinstein, James Trusty, at the time deputy chief in the gang unit at the Justice Department, said "it's not going to be any big surprise that a bunch of US guns are being used in MX (Mexico), so I'm not sure how much grief we get for 'guns walking.' It may be more like, 'Finally, they're going after people who sent guns down there."

The two law enforcement officials said the language of Trusty's email also refers to the Tucson case, not Fast and Furious.

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Trusty's email adds "I think so" on the question of whether Breuer should participate in a press conference, but Trusty adds that "timing will be tricky too."

It continued: "Looks like we'll be able to unseal the Tucson case sooner than the Fast and Furious (although this may be just the difference between Nov and Dec). It's not clear how much we're involved in the main F and F case, but we have Tucson and now a new, related case with (deleted) targets."

The Justice Department blacked out the number of targets in this apparent related third case before turning the email over to congressional investigators on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Fast and Furious was a response to longstanding criticism of ATF for concentrating on small-time gun violations and failing to attack the kingpins of weapons trafficking.

Operation Fast and Furious came to light 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.

NBC News' Pete Williams and Mike Kosnar contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Holder's 'Fast and Furious' testimony under scrutiny

  1. Closed captioning of: Holder's 'Fast and Furious' testimony under scrutiny

    >>> the prerepublicans are calling into an investigation into eric holder to see if he misled congress about the controversial gun trafficking program known as fast and furious . holder testified about it in may 3rd .

    >> when did you first know about the program officially, i believe, called fast and furious , to the best of your knowledge, what date?

    >> i'm not sure of the exact date. i probably heard about fast and furious over the last few weeks.

    >> but newly released memos to holder mentioned the program as far back as last year. the fast and furious program was designed to track guns trafficked into mexico but thousands of the weapons disappeared later turning up in more than 150 crime")2 to be fair, to be accurate, i guess i should say, the two memos that are at issue here, both mention fast and furious but do not mention the problems about letting guns walk. and that's what the justice department says is really the issue here. the attorney general also testified at an earlier hearing in march when he said that he had heard about the program about the problems with the program early in 2011 . so it's -- the justice department says it's the two people talking past each other here. and the question really does remain unresolved which is when did senior officials at the justice department find out the thing was going wrong and what did they do about it? and we'll learn more about that when an inspector general report come out. but the attorney general has already taken some actions here. he said he doesn't want this to happen again. and because of his actions, the u.s. attorney is out in arizona, the u.s. attorney in phoenix who was in charge of the prosecutions here and two officials at atf there have been reassigned.

    >> to get fast and furious to have launched this program, did the atf and the u.s. attorney , did they need signoff by anybody at the justice department here if washington?

    >> you know, i don't know the answer to that question or whether they needed answers from people at the atf headquarters or whether it had a to go all the way to main justice. i don't know if there is something peculiar about this. but one thing that would have required that signoff, one of the things the justice department said is there was a similar, what they use a term gun walking. let guns walk across the border. a similar operation run out of arizona, not in phoenix, but in tucson in 2007 and 2008 in the bush administration . now it had never become public because it didn't have the disastrous consequences that fast and furious did. but they say that this was not the first time that atf tried this.

    >> all right. pete williams , our senior justice correspondent. pete, thanks

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