(CBS News) Congressional Republicans say a secret wiretap application and testimony from the former head of ATF contradict key claims by Attorney General Eric Holder on whether Justice Department officials knew guns were being "walked" in ATF's Fast and Furious case. Some details of the wiretap application, which are technically under court seal, are revealed for the first time in today's Congressional Record.
The Justice Department approved the wiretap application on March 15, 2010. It includes a lengthy affidavit giving details of the case. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) contends that was enough to alert anyone who read it that a massive amount of "gunwalking" was going on. The affidavit describes in detail how ATF agents had surveilled multiple suspected gun traffickers for Mexican drug cartels, but made no arrests or interdictions. Previously, Holder had testified that the wiretap application gave no hint of gunwalking.
"Contrary to the Attorney General's statements, the enclosed wiretap affidavit contains clear information that agents were willfully allowing known straw buyers to acquire firearms for drug cartels and failing to interdict them-in some cases even allowing them to walk to Mexico. In particular, the affidavit explicitly describes the most controversial tactic of all: abandoning surveillance of known straw purchasers, resulting in the failure to interdict firearms," says Issa.
Issa's counterpart on the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), today took issue with the idea that the wiretap application disclosed any hint of gunwalking. He says Issa is "hiding key information" from the very same wiretap documents.
"Sadly, it looks like Mr. Issa is continuing his string of desperate and unsubstantiated claims... His actions demonstrate a lack of concern for the facts, as well as a reckless disregard for our nation's courts and federal prosecutors who are trying to bring criminals to justice. We're not going to stoop to his level," said a Cummings spokesman.
But the former head of ATF, Kenneth Melson, appeared to support the Republican position on the wiretaps when he testified to Congressional investigators on July 4, 2011. Melson said that he read through the Fast and Furious wiretap applications after the scandal broke publicly and "it was apparent to me that (ATF agents) were suggesting that there was probable cause to believe that this information-that these straw purchasers were taking guns across the border."
Melson says as a result, he cautioned his colleagues to distance from a Feb. 4, 2011 statement the Justice Department made to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) claiming there had been no gunwalking. "I drafted an e-mail to our people," Melson testified, "and said, you know, you better back off, you better back...the statement in this letter, this Feb. 4 letter to Senator Grassley, because I don't believe we can say that in light of the information that our agent was swearing before a federal district court judge to get the wiretap."
The wiretap application disclosed that Fast and Furious suspects had already purchased nearly 1,000 firearms in Fast and Furious, that they had not been arrested, and that many of the weapons had already been recovered in criminal hands in Mexico. Nine months later, two weapons in the case were used in a shoot-out with illegal immigrants and the Border Patrol that ended in the death of Special Agent Brian Terry.
"The fact that ATF knew that Target 1 had acquired 852 firearms and had the present intent to move them to Mexico should have prompted (Justice) Department officials to act" back in March of 2010, says Issa in a letter detailing some of the wiretap affidavit contents. "Target 1's activities should have provoked an immediate response by the (Justice Department) Criminal Division to shut him and his network down."
However, Holder has repeatedly testified (03:22) the wiretap affidavits gave no hint of gunwalking. Most recently on June 7, 2012, Holder testified, "There is nothing in those affidavits as I've reviewed them that indicates that gunwalking was allowed. That's--let's get to the bottom line and so I didn't see anything in there that would put on notice a person who was reviewing either at the line level or at the Deputy Assistant Attorney General level you would have knowledge of the fact that these inappropriate tactics were being used."
A source provided Congressional investigators the wiretap application weeks ago, but members of Congress and staff were obliged to keep the contents secret since the application is under court seal. However, during Thursday's debate to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, Rep. Issa entered details of the wiretap into the Congressional Record, where the disclosure is presumed to be protected by the Speech or Debate Clause in the Constitution.