July 6 (Bloomberg) -- Congressional investigators looking into a U.S. law enforcement program to track guns shipped illegally to Mexico are examining whether government-paid informants were involved in smuggling weapons.
Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, and Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, have been investigating a program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allowed illegal purchases in the U.S. in an effort to link guns to Mexican drug cartels.
The lawmakers said they want to know whether suspects identified in that program were serving as informants for other law enforcement agencies without ATF’s knowledge.
“The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in such activities,” the two lawmakers wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that was released today.
The ATF operation, called Fast and Furious, has prompted criticism from lawmakers. Holder has said he asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate.
Two of about 2,000 guns that ATF allowed to be carried away were found at the Arizona murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010, according to a report released in June by Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The operation sought to show a connection between straw buyers of assault-style weapons in the U.S. and Mexican drug trafficking organizations working on both sides of the border, according to the report.
Congressional investigators are looking into whether the Drug Enforcement Administration or Federal Bureau of Investigation paid any informants involved in gun smuggling, according to a congressional staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity and wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Issa and Grassley’s letter to Holder said they had “very real indications” that the gun traffickers the ATF tried to identify were “already known to other agencies and may even have been paid as informants.”
The letter also said acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson told congressional staff that his agency wasn’t informed about certain activities of the FBI and DEA. All three agencies are part of the Justice Department.
Melson told congressional investigators that after public controversy over the Fast and Furious program, he reviewed documents in the case that made him “sick to his stomach,” according to the letter to Holder. Melson said he moved to reassign every field manager involved with the program after reading the documents, the letter said.
ATF wanted to provide more information to Congress and was blocked by Justice Department officials, who took control of communication with lawmakers and told ATF officials not to respond, according to the letter.
Chris Jakim, a spokesman for the DEA, referred questions to the Justice Department. Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, didn’t return phone calls. Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI, didn’t return a call.
In response to the lawmakers’ letter, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote that discussions are continuing about how to provide any information about activities of other law enforcement agencies that may be related to Fast and Furious.
Melson was originally scheduled to be interviewed by congressional investigators on July 13 and instead appeared in meetings on July 3 and July 4, according to the letter. Melson didn’t inform the Justice Department that he’d spoken with investigators until after the meetings occurred, the letter said.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon is trying to reduce violence tied to organized crime and drug trafficking that has caused more than 34,000 deaths since he took office in 2006.
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