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Reporting from Washington — Believing that the Operation Fast and Furious scandal reaches into the highest levels of the Justice Department, congressional Republicans asked the attorney general's office to turn over a sweeping trove of emails, documents and other material to determine Washington's role in the "reckless" operation that allowed U.S. semiautomatic weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels.
"As our investigation into Operation Fast and Furious has progressed, we have learned that senior officials at the Department of Justice, including Senate-confirmed political appointees, were unquestionably aware of the implementation of this reckless program," they said in a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. made public Tuesday. "Therefore, it is necessary to review communications between and among these senior officials."
The investigation is led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The request for carte blanche access to "emails, memoranda, briefing papers and handwritten notes" could spark a political and legal fight over what, if anything, will be turned over.
A top Justice Department spokesperson, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, declined to say how the Obama administration would respond, other than, "We will review their request."
The spokesperson added: "Already, hundreds of thousands of pages have been reviewed and over 2,000 produced or made available, and we also have provided witnesses for interviews. There are all sorts of ways we have been responsive to the committees' requests and we will continue to be."
An official from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the agency would not comment on an ongoing investigation.
Nevertheless, as one congressional investigator said Tuesday evening: "We've got questions. Lots of questions."
Several Washington sources, who also asked not to be identified because of the current investigation, said since the operation was managed out of the ATF field office in Phoenix, senior officials in Washington were not necessarily aware of its specifics.
Holder testified in March that he had recently learned of the program after two of the guns recovered from the December slaying of a U.S. Border Patrol agent were traced to Fast and Furious. Scores of others ended up at crime scenes in Mexico, after U.S. federal agents permitted the sale of about 1,700 guns to illegal straw purchasers in Arizona. The idea was to trace the weapons to Mexican drug cartels, but the ATF lost track of them.
The Republicans' latest request is to review all written communications to and from a dozen top officials. His top assistant, Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cole, is included, as are Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny A. Breuer, and Gary G. Grindler, the former deputy attorney general now assigned to Holder's office. Three of the 12 listed officials are political appointees.
Republicans also are upset that the Justice Department and ATF announced Monday that they soon would require gun dealers in the four border states, including California, to report anyone purchasing two or more semiautomatics in a five-day period.
Several internal ATF emails were released Tuesday, some indicating enthusiasm for the Fast and Furious operation in its early stages. In one, from January 2011, ATF officials described the program as lending support to their new reporting requirements, "to ferret out those intent on providing firearms to these criminal groups" in Mexico.
Another email, from July 2010, described the arrest in a Phoenix suburb of an illegal straw purchaser and former felon who was captured after a high-speed car and foot chase in which he broke his leg. In his vehicle, authorities recovered 20 rifles and two pistols that had just been obtained from a local store under Operation Fast and Furious.