Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, demanded Tuesday that an independent watchdog be used to investigate the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives decision to let hundreds of guns fall into the hands of straw buyers for suspected Mexican weapons traffickers in hopes of making a bigger criminal case.
Grassley took issue with Attorney General Eric Holder's decision last week to ask the acting inspector general of the Justice Department to conduct the probe, saying the department's internal watchdog might have a conflict of interest in reviewing the controversial program that was uncovered by the Center for Public Integrity and CBS News.
The senator cited several possible conflicts, noting the IG's office failed to act on the allegations when they were first brought to its attention by frontline agents and that an earlier report by the IG that criticized ATF's past approach to investigating border state gun trafficking may have provided the impetus for the new investigative strategy that allowed suspected straw buyers to walk off with weapons from gun dealers. In addition, Grassley noted, the Justice watchdog's top job is vacant since Inspector General Glenn Fine's retirement, leaving the office without a confirmed presidential appointee.
"Without a greater level of independence, it will be difficult for the public to have faith in the impartiality and integrity of the result. Therefore, I request that the Acting Inspector General recuse her office and that a disinterested inspector general’s office be selected to conduct the review," Grassley wrote the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the umbrella organization that oversees the conduct of federal inspectors general.
Grassley also requested that the probe be expanded from Holder's request to include "the circumstances surrounding false and misleading statements to Senate Judiciary Committee staff and to me in response to questions about these allegations over the past several weeks."
When Grassley first inquired about ATF's tactics, Justice officials reported back to him that they would never knowingly let a straw buyer walk off with a gun if they thought it was going across the border and took every action to interdict weapons headed to Mexico.
ATF officials, however, later told the Center that they let more than 1,700 guns flow to straw buyers with the expectation they might cross the border or end up in the hands of criminal while the agency tried to build a criminal case.
In addition to the probe requested by Holder, the ATF is asking an outside panel to also review its tactics in the war on Mexican gun trafficking.