The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration has acknowledged to congressional investigators that her agency provided a supporting role in the ill-fated Operation Fast and Furious run by the group's counterparts at the ATF.
Michele M. Leonhart, the DEA administrator, said DEA agents primarily helped gather evidence in cases in Phoenix and El Paso, and in the program's single indictment last January that netted just 20 defendants for illegal gun-trafficking.
The development marks the first time another law enforcement agency has said it also worked on Fast and Furious cases other than the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is under two investigations into why it allowed at least 2,000 firearms to be illegally purchased and then lost track of the guns’ whereabouts.
Nearly 200 of the weapons showed up at crime scenes in Mexico, and two semi-automatics were recovered after a U.S. Border Patrol agent was slain south of Tucson.
Leonhart made the acknowledgement in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A copy of the letter was obtained Friday by The Times.
Leonhart wrote that her agents in Phoenix and El Paso were "indirectly involved in the ATF operation through DEA-associated activity. "
She added, "the DEA El Paso Division responded to a duty call in March 2010 from ATF for assistance in conducting an ongoing surveillance operation in the El Paso area as part of Operation Fast and Furious."
But she said her agents in Phoenix "had the most notable associated investigative activity, though DEA personnel had no decision-making role in any ATF operations." That included helping obtain phone numbers and addresses, issuing subpoenas for information on the phone subscribers, and paying linguist costs of $128,000 to help translate intercepted calls.
Her agency further helped in the "round up phase of the case with the execution of search warrants, participated in debriefing some of the 20 gun-smuggling defendants who were arrested in the Phoenix area, and attending the Jan. 25 press conference announcing those arrests.
Dawn Dearden, a DEA spokeswoman in Washington, declined to comment further Friday on the DEA’s role in Fast and Furious. "The letter stands on its own," she said. "We’re still in a fact-finding mode, so there’s not much more we can say."