ATF Gunwalking docs show Justice Dept. feared bad press

An e-mail exchange among Justice Department officials in 2010 shows some in the Department worried about bad press if reporters knew the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives let guns "walk" into the hands of drug cartels.

The e-mail exchange occurred in October 2010, almost four months before the gunwalking scandal broke publicly.

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It's included among more than 500 pages of documents released Monday by the Justice Department in response to a Congressional subpoena. The exchange is especially revealing because it demonstrates a level of awareness among some at Justice, which oversees ATF, that the practice of "gunwalking" could be viewed as embarrassing.

"It's a good case," wrote Laura Sweeney, a Justice public affairs specialist about a gunwalking case known internally as Operation Wide Receiver started in 2006. "But the only obstacle will be explaining why we let them continue to send guns to Mexico while we were investigating."

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Among the recipients of that e-mail was James Trusty, at that time Justice's Deputy Chief for Litigation. "I think we can navigate through this stuff fine," Trusty wrote. "Bottom line is bad guys who trafficked guns into MX (Mexico) are being targeted and indicted, so I don't see any of these questions as being so dreaded as to negate the good news component."

The case prosecutor pointed out that ATF had intercepted 50 of the hundreds of weapons ATF let walk in Wide Receiver. Sweeney in Public Affairs wrote, "Well done!!"

The three agreed to move forward on publicizing arrests in the case, minimizing the negative gunwalking aspect. But a second e-mail exchange later shows that higher officials in the department eventually nixed publicity.

"Why did we decide not to do any press (even a press release) on it?" wrote Mythili Raman, Chief of Staff to the head of Justice's Criminal Division.

"Lots of guns allowed to go south," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein replied. "(we) agreed the case would be weaved into anti-ATF story."

Guns the ATF let walk in a similar case known as Operation Fast and Furious, started in 2009, turned up at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry just a month later.

More Fast and Furious coverage:

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Agent: I was ordered to let guns "walk" into Mexico
Gunwalking scandal uncovered at ATF