Reporting from Washington — The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration has acknowledged to congressional investigators that her agency provided a supporting role in the ill-fated Operation Fast and Furious run by their counterparts at the ATF.
Michele M. Leonhart, the agency administrator, said DEA agents primarily helped gather evidence for cases in Phoenix and El Paso, and for the program's single indictment last January that netted 20 defendants for illegal gun trafficking.
The development marks the first time another law enforcement agency besides the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it worked on Fast and Furious cases. The ATF is under two investigations into why it allowed at least 2,000 firearms to be illegally purchased and then lost track of the guns' whereabouts.
Nearly 200 of the weapons showed up at crime scenes in Mexico, and two semiautomatics were recovered after a U.S. Border Patrol agent was slain south of Tucson.
Leonhart made the acknowledgment in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. A copy of the letter was obtained Friday by The Times.
Leonhart wrote that her agents in Phoenix and El Paso were "indirectly involved in the ATF operation through DEA-associated activity. "
She added that "the DEA El Paso Division responded to a duty call in March 2010 from ATF for assistance in conducting an ongoing surveillance operation in the El Paso area as part of Operation Fast and Furious."
But she said her agents in Phoenix "had the most notable associated investigative activity, though DEA personnel had no decision-making role in any ATF operations." The investigative activity included helping obtain phone numbers and addresses, issuing subpoenas for information on the phone subscribers, and paying linguist costs of $128,000 to help translate intercepted calls.
Her agency also helped in the "round-up phase" of the case by executing search warrants, participating in the debriefing of some of the 20 gun-smuggling suspects arrested in the Phoenix area, and attending a Jan. 25 news conference announcing the arrests.
Dawn Dearden, a DEA spokeswoman in Washington, declined to further comment Friday. "The letter stands on its own," she said. "We're still in a fact-finding mode, so there's not much more we can say."