W.H.: Ex-staffer can't be questioned on Fast and Furious

Congress grilled the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as the Department of Justice about the controversial gunwalking program that intentionally let guns into Mexico. Sharyl Attkisson reports.

Congress probes ATF, DOJ
CBS News
(CBS News) The White House said a former National Security staffer who communicated with ATF's Special Agent in charge of "Fast and Furious" cannot be interviewed by Congressional investigators.

The ATF Special Agent, Bill Newell, testified to Congress in July 2011 that he's a longtime friend with then-White House National Security Staffer Kevin O'Reilly. The two emailed and talked on the phone during the controversial Fast and Furious gunwalking operation, according to documents and Newell's testimony to Congress.

In one email exchange about Fast and Furious on Feb. 11, 2011 O'Reilly asked Newell, "Would ATF be willing to put you or others in front of US media that gets pickup in Mexico (CNN en Espanol, perhaps) to tell this story?"

At the time, the Justice Department and ATF were denying any gunwalking had occurred, and were looking for ways to promote stories about gun traffickers buying weapons in the U.S. and taking them to Mexico.

"Kevin as we discussed last night," answered Newell, "these are some examples of what we could get translated and use in the Mexican media . . . The 'Fast and Furious' indictment is listed under 'U.S. v Avila.'"

The two also emailed about the case in July 2010, exchanging anecdotes and photographs of gun seizures in the case.

Kevin O'Reilly emails (pdf)

"This is great; very informative," O'Reilly told Newell. "OK to share with Sr Director Dan Restropo and with CT/CN Director Greg Gatjanis? Would not leave NSS I assure you."

"Sure," answered Newell, "just don't want ATF HQ to find out, especially since this is what they should be doing (briefing you)!"

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For nearly a year, Republican Congressional investigators have been seeking an interview with O'Reilly to ask what he knew "about the objectives and tactics used in Fast and Furious and with whom did he share his knowledge." They also wanted to ask about the content of telephone conversations between the two.

None of the emails made public so far indicate O'Reilly had any knowledge of the controversial tactics of letting guns walk.

Last fall, the White House said O'Reilly was unavailable because he was on assignment for the State Department in Iraq. Investigators said they were willing to do the interview by phone, and O'Reilly's lawyer said he had no objection.

However, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said O'Reilly will not be made available.

"(N)one of these limited communications between Mr. O'Reilly and Mr. Newell revealed the existence of any of the inappropriate investigative tactics at issue in your inquiry, let alone any decision to allow guns to 'walk,'" wrote Ruemmler in a letter to the offices of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Citing Executive Branch confidentiality interests, Ruemmler said, "There is an insufficient basis to support the request to interview Mr. O'Reilly."

Republicans in Congress disagree.

In a letter to the White House, Issa and Grassley wrote, "O'Reilly's testimony is necessary to allow us to begin to determine the extent of involvement - if any - of White House staff in Operation Fast and Furious. As such, we strongly urge you to reverse your position and facilitate an interview with O'Reilly without further delay."

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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