E-mails allege strife within ATF over Grassley probe

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A senior manager in the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is now talking to Senate investigators about a controversial sting operation that allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, revealed today that George T. Gillett Jr., an assistant special agent in charge in Phoenix, is cooperating with his office as it looks into decisions made by ATF and the Justice Department in the so-called “Fast and Furious” sting operation.

Gillett is the second ATF employee to reveal his cooperation. James Dodson, a Phoenix-based agent, has also spoken to Grassley’s staff, criticizing his agency for allowing guns bought by straw purchasers to fall into the hands of criminals in Mexico.

Grassley’s office did not reveal what Gillett said. His attorney, Peter Noone, did not wish to comment, and ATF officials declined to comment on Gillett as well.

Meanwhile, Grassley wrote a new letter to ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson, warning that any agency actions taken against employees who cooperate with Congress may violate federal law.

Grassley’s letter was in response to recently released e-mails raising the possibility that ATF supervisors might be harassing employees who were cooperating with Grassley’s staff. An unidentified ATF employee alleged that he was “called to the carpet” by supervisors, accused of lying and ordered to write down everything that was said in meetings that were held with Senate staffers conducting an inquiry, according to those e-mails.

The e-mails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal discussions within the agency on how to respond to Grassley’s questions about the “Fast and Furious” operation. The heavily redacted documents were produced in response to a FOIA request by David Cordrea, a reporter for examiner.com but passed on to the Center for Public Integrity by a government source.

According to an e-mail dated Jan. 31 and sent by an unidentified person to ATF deputy director William J. Hoover, Grassley’s chief counsel warned ATF officials that they might be violating a law that protects government whistleblowers. Grassley was planning to talk about these concerns with Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the e-mails.

The ATF on Feb. 3 then drafted an e-mail to be sent to employees, telling them that Grassley was asking questions. ATF confirmed that the e-mail was sent to field offices.

“As always, you are in no way obligated to respond to congressional contacts or requests for information” that e-mail, said, noting that ATF agents were not authorized to reveal non-public information. However, the e-mail encouraged staff to report waste, fraud or abuse to their supervisors or the department’s inspector general.

Grassley’s new letter to Melson said the ATF e-mail to employees was of “grave concern.” But Scott Thomasson, ATF’s chief of public affairs, said no ATF employee had been retaliated against for speaking to Congress, adding that “all [the memo] was trying to do was to provide what the law was.”

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