WASHINGTON — In a probe of arms trafficking during the George W. Bush administration, a federal prosecutor said it was wrong that law enforcement agents allowed guns to go into Mexico and to drug dealers, according to documents the Justice Department turned over to Congress on Thursday.
The emailed comment by an assistant U.S. attorney in Arizona to a law enforcement colleague in December 2008 focused on the tactic used in Operation Wide Receiver, an investigation that began in early 2006. The documents show Wide Receiver had many of the same problems that turned up more recently in a separate, later probe called Operation Fast and Furious, which is the focus of an inquiry by congressional Republicans.
The concerns about the earlier Wide Receiver probe that were expressed in the internal Justice Department documents deal with the law enforcement tactic of standing aside rather than arresting "straw" buyers of illicitly purchased weapons in the hopes that agents can follow the guns and straw buyers to major arms traffickers.
The tactic, known as, "letting guns walk," long has been prohibited by Justice Department policy. But federal agents under the Bush and Obama administrations, nevertheless, turned to the tactic as a response to long-running criticism that traditional department policies have left arms-trafficking kingpins virtually untouched by prosecutors.
The Wide Receiver used the gun-walking tactic despite concerns expressed by law enforcement personnel involved in it.
Investigative activity went on for another year, then languished at the Justice Department until the Obama administration took office.
Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department pursued the Wide Receiver case. Six defendants have pleaded guilty, two others charged are fugitives and a third fugitive in the case was recently arrested.
There was extensive discussion in the internal documents about the desire to coordinate the Wide Receiver investigation with Mexican authorities — but little in the documents to indicate that coordination actually took place.