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Gun shy: Firearms dealer worried ATF would let weapons slip to bad guy

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Nick Ut/The Associated Press

An Arizona gun dealer pressed by federal agents to continue selling weapons to suspected straw buyers for Mexican cartels repeatedly sought assurances from prosecutors and law enforcement that the government would not let the guns cross into Mexico or be used against U.S. border agents, according to evidence gathered by Senate investigators.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and federal prosecutors assured the dealer in e-mails that they were “continually monitoring the suspects” who ended up buying more than 1,700 guns in 2009 and 2010 with the government’s knowledge as part of a controversial investigation code-named Operation Fast and Furious, the e-mails show.

But the government’s promises, detailed in emails obtained the Center for Public Integrity, turned out to be hollow. In fact, almost 800 of the weapons turned up after they were used in crimes, collected during arrests or seized through other law enforcement operations, including 195 in Mexico alone. Two weapons traced to the Fast and Furious operation were recovered near the scene of a murdered Border Patrol agent – an outcome that the firearms dealer specifically feared, according to the e-mails.

The e-mails and testimony gathered by investigators for Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, are the latest twist in a growing controversy over an Obama administration law enforcement operation that let guns “walk” to straw buyers in hopes of making a bigger criminal case against Mexican drug cartels.

“The Justice Department’s claim that ATF never knowingly sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers is simply not credible,” Grassley wrote in a letter delivered late Wednesday night to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Grassley has repeatedly accused the department of stonewalling congressional requests for documents showing who approved the law enforcement tactics, which have deeply angered authorities in Mexico.

President Barack Obama has said neither he nor Holder approved the tactics and conceded the operation may have been a mistake.

ATF officials did not immediately respond to a request Thursday for comment.

The e-mails gathered by Grassley’s investigators redacted the name of the gun dealer in question to protect the store from possible retribution by Mexican gangs angry the retailer cooperated in a law enforcement sting.

But they show the dealer was deeply concerned about possible legal liability for continuing to sell to suspected straw buyers, as the government had asked.

“We were hoping to alleviate concerns of some type of resource against us down the road for selling these items,” the dealer wrote in an April 2010 e-mail, as the ATF sting operation entered its sixth month. “We want to make sure we are cooperating with ATF and that we are not viewed as selling to bad guys.”

A senior ATF official acknowledged the concerns and gave the dealer assurances in writing that protections were in place.

“I totally understand and am not in a position to tell you how to run your business. However, if it helps put you at ease we (ATF) are continually monitoring these suspects using a variety of investigative techniques which I cannot go into,” ATF agent David J. Voth wrote the dealer on April 13, 2010.

Voth’s assurances, however, did not reflect ATF’s actual investigative strategy. Frontline agents have told the Center previously that not all the suspects were monitored regularly and that ATF supervisors acknowledged they fully expected some of the weapons to end up in Mexico and be utilized in crimes that could then be used as evidence in a more significant prosecution.

The dealer’s concerns persisted, especially after the store’s employees witnessed one of the straw buyers exchanging money in a lot – clearly demonstrating the buyer didn’t intend to purchase the weapons for himself, as required by law.

Soon, the dealer became worried the guns would end up in the hands of Mexican criminals and possible be used to harm U.S. border agents.

The dealer sought a meeting May 13, 2010 with federal prosecutors in Arizona, at which new assurances were given that guns weren’t being sent across the border, Grassley said. Prosecutors, however, made an odd request for a condition at the meeting: the gun dealer’s lawyers could not attend, Grassley said.

The gun dealer continued to worry. A TV news report about border safety prompted him to send prosecutors a letter expressing concern that the guns he had sold to the suspected straw buyers might be used to harm U.S. border agents.

“I shared my concerns with you guys that I wanted to make sure none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of bad guys,” the dealer wrote in June 2010.

“I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents’ safety because I have some very close friends that are US Border Patrol agents,” the dealer added.

In December 2010, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was fatally shot north of the Mexico-Arizona border while trying to arrest bandits who target illegal immigrants. Two weapons recovered near the scene were linked to the Fast and Furious operation, though the ATF says neither of these firearms fired the fatal shots.