Congressional investigators will get another crack at one of the Justice Department principals for Operation Fast and Furious, a weapons sting that has set up an oversight battle between Republicans and the Obama administration.
Dennis Burke, the former U.S. attorney for Arizona, will be interviewed by the office of Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) for the first time since an interview over the summer was cut short.
When Senate Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) first asked the Justice Department about allegations that a gun-smuggling investigation on the Southwestern border allowed hundreds of assault weapons to escape into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, Burke denounced Grassley for even asking the question.
“What is so offensive about this whole project is that Grassley’s staff, acting as willing stooges for the gun lobby, have attempted to distract from the incredible success in dismantling [Southwest border] gun trafficking operations,” Burke told Justice Department lawyers who were preparing a response.
Pushing lawyers to “categorical[ly]” deny the allegations, Burke bristled when other officials raised the “risks” of an aggressive denial. “What risk?” Burke wrote to colleagues.
Grassley had questioned whether two AK-47s that had been found at the site of U.S. Border Agent Brian Terry’s murder had been tracked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ investigation.
In fact, they had been. But Burke, in a Feb. 4 email, blasted Grassley’s office for “lobbing this reckless despicable accusation that ATF is complicit in the murder of a fellow federal law enforcement officer.”
The same day the email was sent, the Justice Department would send a letter to Grassley broadly denying that ATF investigations had allowed guns to “walk,” which means ending surveillance on guns suspected to be in transit to criminal networks.
Attorney General Eric Holder has since conceded the letter contained false information, and the letter was formally withdrawn by the Justice Department on Dec. 2.
“Any instance of so-called gunwalking was unacceptable. This tactic was unfortunately used as part of Fast and Furious,” Holder told Senators at a Nov. 8 Judiciary Committee hearing. “This should never have happened.”
Burke received frequent oral and written briefings from the operation’s lead prosecutor and from ATF officials heading it. Congressional investigators have asked whether Burke knew gunwalking tactics were being used at the time he told Justice Department lawyers to deny to Congress they were, and if not, how he could have been ignorant about them.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.