(CNSNews.com) - Members of Congress investigating the ATF's botched gun-tracking operation say it now appears that the Justice Department "obstructed" their attempts to find out what happened. They also expressed deep concern about the possibility that the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency already knew about -- and may even have been working with -- the people who were smuggling weapons to Mexican drug cartels.
The new information comes from Kenneth Melson, Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who voluntarily testified before congressional investigators on the July 4 holiday.
Accompanied by his personal attorney -- not a Justice Department attorney -- Melson told investigators that he would have been more cooperative with them if it weren't for Justice Department officials trying to limit and control his agency's communications with Congress.
In a July 5 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said they now consider Melson to be a key witness in the case.
"Acting Director Melson's cooperation was extremely helpful to our investigation," Issa and Grassley wrote to Holder. "He claimed that ATF's senior leadership would have preferred to be more cooperative with our inquiry much earlier in the process. However, he said that Justice Department officials directed them not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress. The result is that Congress only got the parts of the story that the (Justice) Department wanted us to hear. If his account is accurate, then ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DOJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand. That approach distorted the truth and obstructed our investigation. The Department's inability or unwillingness to be more forthcoming served to conceal critical information that we are now learning about the involvement of other agencies, including the DEA and the FBI."
Grassley says Melson made two key assertions to investigators:
Contrary to denials by the Justice Department, Melson acknowledged that ATF agents had in fact witnessed transfers of weapons from straw purchasers to third parties without following the guns any further.
Melson also said the ATF agents carrying out Operation Fast and Furious had been placed under the direction of the Arizona U.S. Attorney's office.
The Role of DEA, FBI
In their letter to Holder, Issa and Grassley said they learned from several sources that some of the gun trafficking "higher-ups" -- whom ATF was trying to identify through Operation Fast and Furious -- "were already known to other agencies and may even have been paid as informants."
Melson told investigators that the "ATF was kept in the dark about certain activities of other agencies, including DEA and FBI. Mr. Melson said that he learned from ATF agents in the field that information obtained by these agencies could have had a material impact on the Fast and Furious investigation as far back as late 2009 or early 2010. After learning about the possible role of DEA and FBI, he testified that he reported this information in April 2011 to the Acting Inspector General and directly to then-Acting Deputy Attorney General James Cole on June 16, 2011."
Issa and Grassley continued: "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. While this is preliminary information, we must find out if there is any truth to it. According to Acting Director Melson, he became aware of this startling possibility only after the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and the indictments of the straw purchasers, which we now know were substantially delayed by the U.S. Attorney's Office and Main Justice (Department)."
Two of the straw-purchased guns were found in December in Arizona, at the place where Border Patrol Agent Terry was murdered.
Issa and Grassley said that Melson "provided documents months ago supporting his concerns." Melson told investigators he sent those documents to the person in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General who is responsible for sending documents to congressional committees -- "but those documents have not been provided to us," Issa and Grassley said.
The lawmakers also stated that Melson's interview with congressional investigators was supposed to happen on July 13 -- in the presence of attorney from the Justice Department and ATF. Issa and Grassley said they were "disappointed" that no one at the Justice Department told Melson he could choose to voluntarily attend an interview accompanied by his own lawyer, rather than testify with attorneys representing the Justice Department's interests. "Instead, Justice Department officials sought to limit and control his communications with Congress," the lawmakers wrote.
"It is one thing to argue that the ends justify the means in an attempt to defend a policy that puts building a big case ahead of stopping known criminals from getting guns," the lawmakers wrote to Holder. "Yet it is a much more serious matter to conceal from Congress the possible involvement of other agencies in identifying and maybe even working with the same criminals that Operation Fast and Furious was trying to identify."
If this information is accurate, they said, the “misguided” Operation Fast and Furious might have been cut short. “If agencies within the same Department, co-located at the same facilities, had simply communicated with one another, then ATF might have known that gun trafficking ‘higher-ups’ had been already identified. This raises new and serious questions about the role of DEA, FBI, the United States Attorney's Office in Arizona, and Main Justice (Department) in coordinating this effort."
"Nearly a decade after the September 11th attacks, the stovepipes of information within our government may still be causing tragic mistakes long after they should have been broken down," Issa and Grassley concluded.