WASHINGTON - Newly released Justice Department emails sent to Capitol Hill for a congressional inquiry into a gun-smuggling operation indicate that the head of the department's criminal division suggested letting some illicit "straw" weapons buyers in the U.S. transport their guns across the border into Mexico where they could be arrested.
According to the emails turned over to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Friday night, the Justice official, Lanny Breuer, made the suggestion to Mexican officials because it "may send a strong message to arms traffickers."
Mexico has stringent gun control laws with long prison terms as opposed to the U.S., where small-time "straw" buyers working for major arms traffickers seldom face jail time.
Breuer made the remarks in February 2011, around the time that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were telling congressional investigators that the ATF had allowed hundreds of illicitly purchased guns in the operation known as Fast and Furious flow into Mexico -- a controversial tactic known as "gun-walking" aimed at following gun buyers to major traffickers.
In Fast and Furious, the ATF lost track of the guns and many were eventually recovered from crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico, including one location near Nogales, Ariz., where U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry was slain on Dec. 14, 2010. Two guns found at the murder scene were connected to Operation Fast and Furious.
The documents on Breuer were among 486 pages of material turned over to the House committee chaired by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California.
Also among the documents are Justice Department emails involving a former top aide to Attorney General Eric Holder. The emails show that then-deputy chief of staff Monty Wilkinson was notified by then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke the day after Terry was slain that guns found at the murder scene were connected to an investigation that Burke and Wilkinson had planned to discuss. The emails did not identify the investigation, but it was Operation Fast and Furious.
In a letter to the committee, the Justice Department said that Wilkinson does not recall a follow-up call with Burke and that Wilkinson does not recall discussing this aspect of the matter with the attorney general. According to the letter, the department has been advised that Burke has no recollection of discussing this aspect of the matter with Wilkinson.