WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley today said that Federal Firearms Licensees also had concerns with supplying guns to known straw purchasers, but were assured by officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that the Bureau was “continually monitoring these suspects.”
In January, Grassley began questioning the ATF policy that allowed guns to walk across the Mexican border after whistleblowers from within the ATF came to him to express dismay and concern about the ill-advised policy. These whistleblowers had warned their higher-ups that the strategy would end up getting someone killed. Their prophecy may have come true when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a gunfight with suspected cartel members on December 14, 2010.
“The Justice Department’s unwillingness to be forthcoming is troubling, and the more we learn from whistleblowers, the more it looks like the department will end up with egg on its face,” Grassley said. “Whistleblowers are still coming forward with more information disproving the department’s only response to my inquiries.”
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Grassley provides the Attorney General with emails between ATF officials and a Federal Firearms Licensee in Arizona. These emails demonstrate that ATF instructed gun dealers to engage in suspicious sales despite the dealer’s concerns.
In one email, the dealer raises for a third time with an ATF supervisor his concerns about how the case is being handled.
"I shared my concerns with you guys that I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border and in the hands of the bad guys…I want to help ATF with its investigation, but not at the risk of agents' safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. border patrol agents in southern Arizona," the dealer wrote to ATF Supervisor David Voth.
Grassley said the government put the firearms dealers in a completely unfair position. “On the one hand, these gun dealers rely upon the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for their license to even be able to be in business. So, of course, these agents (Federal Firearms Licensees) want to cooperate with the government. When you have got this big club hanging over your head, will you be licensed or not licensed. On the other hand, the government asks these gun dealers to keep selling to the bad guys even after the dealers warned that it might end in tragedy,” Grassley said.
Here is a copy of the text of the letter. A copy of the signed letter and attachments is here.
April 13, 2011
VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION
The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20530
Dear Attorney General Holder:
At approximately 1:30 p.m. yesterday, my staff learned that the Justice Department was making four documents available at 2:00 pm for Chairman Darrell Issa’s staff to review regarding the controversy over ATF’s Project Gunrunner, Operation Fast and Furious, and the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. These documents are among those I requested in February of this year. Yet, the Justice Department refused to make them available for my staff to review. In fact, the Justice Department has produced not one single page of documents in response to my inquiries.
Thus far, I have not requested that Chairman Leahy join in any document requests, consider any subpoenas, or schedule any hearings into this matter in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Any such request would be unnecessary and duplicative of the process on the House side, so long as any documents provided there are also provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee at the same time.
The Department’s failure to cooperate with my requests is especially troubling in light of the February 4, 2011, reply to my initial letter. In that reply, the Justice Department took the position that those allegations were “false” and specifically denied “that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons” to straw purchasers. The letter further claimed that “ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”
I already provided evidence contradicting that denial in my February 9 and March 3 letters. In addition, attached you will find further documentation undermining the Department’s assertion. Specifically, the documents are emails between ATF officials and a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) in Arizona. These emails demonstrate that ATF instructed gun dealers to engage in suspicious sales despite the dealers’ concerns. The emails refer to meetings between the FFL and the U.S. Attorney’s office to address the concerns being raised by the FFL. ATF supervisor David Voth wrote on April 13, 2010:
I understand that the frequency with which some individuals under investigation by our office have been purchasing firearms from your business has caused concerns for you. … However, if it helps put you at ease we (ATF) are continually monitoring these suspects using a variety of investigative techniques which I cannot go into [in] detail.
In response, the gun dealer expresses concern about potential future liability and sought something in writing to address the issue explicitly:
For us, we were hoping to put together something like a letter of understanding to alleviate concerns of some type of recourse against us down the road for selling these items. We just want to make sure we are cooperating with ATF and that we are not viewed as selling to bad guys.
Following this email, the ATF arranged a meeting between the FFL and the U.S. Attorney’s office. According to the FFL, the U.S. Attorney’s office scheduled a follow-up meeting with the FFL, but asked that the FFL’s attorney not be present.
At the meeting on May 13, 2010, the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to provide anything in writing but assured the gun dealer in even stronger terms that there were safeguards in place to prevent further distribution of the weapons after being purchased from his business. As we now know, those assurances proved to be untrue. On June 17, 2010, the gun dealer wrote to the ATF to again express concerns after seeing a report on Fox News about firearms and the border:
The segment, if the information was correct, is disturbing to me. When you, [the Assistant U.S. Attorney], and I met on May 13th, I shared my concerns with you guys that I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys. … I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents’ safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ[.]
Incredibly, the FFL sent this email six months before guns from the same ATF operation were found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder. So, not only were the ATF agents who later blew the whistle predicting that this operation would end in tragedy, so were the gun dealers—even as ATF urged them to make the sales.
Furthermore, according to the FFL, there were “one or two” occasions on which his employees actually witnessed and recorded with surveillance cameras an exchange of money between the straw purchaser and another individual on the premises. Despite this actual knowledge of a straw purchase, the dealer said ATF officials wanted him to proceed with the transaction. However, his employees refused to process the sale.
In light of this new evidence, the Justice Department’s claim that the ATF never knowingly sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers is simply not credible. As you know, I have multiple document and information requests pending with various components of the Justice Department. Unfortunately, however, it appears that senior Department officials are not allowing the components to respond fully and directly.
Please provide written answers to the following questions by no later than April 20, 2011:
1. Do you stand by the assertion in the Department’s reply that the ATF whistleblower allegations are “false” and specifically that ATF did not sanction or otherwise knowingly allow the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers? If so, please explain why in light of the mounting evidence to the contrary.
2. Will you commit to providing the Senate Judiciary Committee with documents, or access to documents, simultaneously with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform? If not, please explain why not.
If you have any questions regarding this request, please have your staff contact Jason Foster at (202) 224-5225. Thank you for your prompt attention these important issues.
 Email from ATF Group VII Supervisor David Voth to Cooperating FFL, Apr. 13, 2010 (Attached).
 Email from Cooperating FFL to ATF Group VII Supervisor David Voth, Apr. 13, 2010 (Attached).
 Telephone interview with Cooperating FFL, Apr. 5, 2011.
 Email from Cooperating FFL to ATF Group VII Supervisor David Voth, Jun. 17, 2010 (Attached).
 Telephone interview with Cooperating FFL, Apr. 5, 2011.