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ATF Gunwalker: Who at the White House knew?

CBS News has obtained a series of emails that show the White House had more information on ATF's controversial Fast and Furious operation than previously disclosed. But administration officials insists nobody at the White House knew specifically that ATF was allowing guns to "walk" into the hands of suspected gun traffickers for Mexican drug cartels.

ATF allegedly allowed more than two thousand assault rifles and other weapons to fall into the hands of suspects from late fall of 2009 through 2010.

The emails indicate three White House officials were briefed on gun trafficking efforts that included Fast and Furious. The officials are Kevin O'Reilly, then-director of North American Affairs, now assigned to the State Department; Dan Restrepo, senior Latin American advisory; and Greg Gatjanis, a national security official.

The White House officials were provided information on Fast and Furious and other border gun trafficking efforts through what an administration source calls "back channels" by ATF's then-Special Agent in Charge of Phoenix Bill Newell. "...don't want ATF HQ to find out, especially since this is what they should be doing (briefing you)," Newell wrote in an email to the White House's O'Reilly on July 28, 2010. Newell has since been transferred out of that post.

An administration source describes the emails as colleagues sharing information about a gun trafficking initiative. On July 28, 2010 O'Reilly emails Newell: "Just an informal 'how's it going?" Newell replied by reporting good progress in efforts to stop gun trafficking to Mexico, and gave specific anecdotes. "This is great; very informative," O'Reilly replies.

In another email to O'Reilly at the White House on Aug. 18, 2010, Newell expresses frustration with the US Attorney's request to have agents in trafficking cases "physically inspect the firearms (that turn up) in Mexico... to show the jury that (it) was part of a trafficking scheme." Newell complains, "Other districts don't require this but hey it's Arizona." Newell went on to explain the difficulties in getting Mexico to cooperate on its end. " won't take many more times of having doors slammed in (agent's) faces by the Mexicans before they give up..." The US Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke resigned this week. His lead prosecutor in Phoenix who had advised ATF on Fast and Furious has been moved out of the criminal division.

The emails taken alone neither prove nor disprove whether White House officials knew that ATF was monitoring as weapons were sold to suspected gun traffickers, then let on the street without interdiction. However, an administration source vehemently denies anybody at the White House knew the controversial tactic known as "letting guns walk," was being used. "These e-mails exchanges show nothing more than an effort to give local color to a policy initiative that was designed to give more resources to help with the border problem. They don't even contain the name 'Fast and Furious' until February 2011." The administration official adds: "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.."

The three email chains showing ATF made contact with White House officials are from: July 28- Aug. 11, 2010; Aug. 18, 2010; and Feb. 11, 2011. The third chain happened after the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terryin Arizona. Two weapons ATF allegedly let "walk" were found at the murder scene. That case is not referenced in the emails. The administration has not said whether the emails represent the only written White House communications on the case.

The email chains indicate there were also phone conversations between ATF's Phoenix Special Agent in Charge Bill Newell and the White House's Kevin O'Reilly. The content of those conversations has not been disclosed.

Correction: In an earlier version of this report, CBS News reported that an administration official claimed certain emails weren't related to Fast and Furious, then later acknowledged they probably were. In fact, the official did not change his representation: the emails discussed were two different sets of emails.

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