Newly obtained emails show that the White House was better informed about a failed gun-tracking operation on the border with Mexico than was previously known.
Three White House national security officials were given some details about the operation, dubbed Fast and Furious. The operation allowed firearms to be illegally purchased, with the goal of tracking them to Mexican drug cartels. But the effort went out of control after agents lost track of many of the weapons.
The supervisor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation in Phoenix specifically mentioned Fast and Furious in at least one email to a White House national security official, and two other White House colleagues were briefed on reports from the supervisor, according to White House emails and a senior administration official.
But the senior administration official said the emails, obtained Thursday by The Times, did not prove that anyone in the White House was aware of the covert "investigative tactics" of the operation.
"The emails validate what has been said previously, which is no one at the White House knew about the investigative tactics being used in the operation, let alone any decision to let guns walk," said the official, who was not authorized to speak about it publicly. "To the extent that some [national security staff members] were briefed on the top lines of ongoing federal efforts, so were members of Congress."
He identified the three White House officials who were briefed as Kevin M. O'Reilly, director of North American Affairs for the White House national security staff; Dan Restrepo, the president's senior Latin American advisor; and Greg Gatjanis, a White House national security official.
"The emails were not forwarded beyond them, and we are not aware of any [additional] briefings related to that email chain," the official said.
The emails were sent between July 2010 and February of this year before it was disclosed that agents had lost track of hundreds of guns. Many are thought to have fallen into criminal hands, and some have turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States, including at the fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) are trying to determine what the Justice Department and the White House knew about the program.
According to the emails, William D. Newell, then the ATF field supervisor for Arizona and New Mexico, was in close contact with O'Reilly and sought the White House's help to persuade the Mexican government to let ATF agents recover U.S. guns across the border.
After earlier emails from Newell to O'Reilly surfaced, Newell testified to congressional investigators in July that the two were friends and acknowledged that he probably should not have sent them to him. But the new emails indicate that Newell and O'Reilly were in deeper discussions about gun operations on the border.
In July 2010, about nine months after Fast and Furious started, O'Reilly was seeking information about ways to fight gun trafficking in Arizona when he emailed Newell.
"Just an informal 'how's it going?' " he wrote. He titled the email "GRIT Surge Phoenix," an acronym for Gun Runner Impact Teams.
Newell replied that things were "going very well actually."
Though not mentioning Fast and Furious by name, he talked about large numbers of ATF agents being temporarily transferred to Arizona to work on cases, apparently alluding to the Fast and Furious program. He also praised their work on "firearms trafficking investigations with direct links to Mexican" cartels, which was the main goal of Fast and Furious.
"This is great," O'Reilly replied. "Very informative."
O'Reilly asked whether he could share the information with Restrepo and Gatjanis. He added that the information "would not leave NSS, I assure you."
Newell answered, "Sure, just don't want ATF HQ to find out, especially since this is what they should be doing (briefing you)!"
A third email went from Newell to O'Reilly on Feb. 11, two months after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in Arizona and Fast and Furious weapons were found at the scene.
Newell discussed the just-obtained indictments of 20 people, including Jaime Avila, for illegal gun purchasing. It was two of Avila's guns bought under Fast and Furious that ended up at the Terry shooting. This time, Newell specifically mentioned Fast and Furious.
"The Fast and Furious indictment is listed under U.S. v Avila and that's the one in which there's an introduction of the techniques used by firearms traffickers," he told O'Reilly. He suggested "we" should use the indictment to draw attention to the arrests through the media in Mexico.
In another development, the Justice Department said it knew of only one other instance where a Fast and Furious weapon was "recovered in connection with a crime of violence in the U.S." Earlier it had said there were 11 instances.