Erroneous Gun Letter Based on U.S. Attorney, Documents Show

The U.S. Justice Department sent an inaccurate letter about a gun operation to a Republican Senator after relying on the assertions of the former U.S. attorney for Arizona, according to documents released today.

The department released about 1,400 pages of e-mails and draft letters to demonstrate that officials did not deliberately mislead Congress about the law enforcement program, known as Fast and Furious, which allowed illegal gun purchases in the U.S. in an effort to link the weapons to Mexican drug cartels.

Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in January concerning allegations that the bureau “sanctioned” the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers and two of the weapons were used in a firefight that killed a U.S. border patrol agent.

The U.S. attorney at the time, Dennis Burke, said in an e- mail to Justice Department officials that Grassley’s allegations were “based on categorical falsehoods.” In a Feb. 4 response to Grassley, the Justice Department asserted that “ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.” The department has since backed away from that statement.

In a written response last month to questions from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said that both the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona “repeatedly and assured individuals throughout the Justice Department that those allegations were false.”

’Categorically False’

Burke, in early February, insisted in an e-mail to top Justice officials that any allegations that the bureau allowed weapons bought in Arizona to reach Mexico were “categorically false.” He requested that such a statement be part of the written response to Grassley and it remained in the letter through numerous drafts, documents show.

In fact, the agency lost track of guns in the program. Two of about 2,000 guns that the ATF allowed to be carried away were found at the scene of the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona, according to a congressional report released in June.

Burke resigned Aug. 30, the same day it was announced that Kenneth Melson, acting ATF director, was also leaving his post. Melson also was involved in e-mail traffic over the response to Grassley, as were several other top Justice officials.

“Dennis Burke is a stand-up guy,” said his lawyer, Chuck Rosenberg, a partner in the Washington office of Hogan Lovells. “He provided what he believed to be accurate information to the Department of Justice, as he always does.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at jsalant@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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