Justice Dept. Fast and Furious emails show disagreement over response to Grassley

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More than 1,000 pages of frenzied email exchanges were fired back and forth among Justice Department officials, as they weighed how to respond to initial inquires about the gunwalker scandal. Today, the agency turned over those subpoenaed records to Congress in advance of a hearing next week with Attorney General Eric Holder.

PICTURES: ATF "Gunwalking" scandal timeline

The emails are marked by intra-office disagreement over how vigorously to defend the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) amid questions from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. ATF whistleblowers had told Sen. Grassley that their own agency had let thousands of weapons "walk" into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. They also told Grassley that two of the weapons involved in the case, known as "Fast and Furious," were used at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

"Those [allegations] are the most salacious, and the most damaging to ATF, both short-and long-term," writes Deputy Asst. Attorney General Jason Weinstein to Justice Department Special Counsel Faith Burton on Feb. 2, 2011.

Weinstein also wrote ATF Acting Director Ken Melson, calling the gunwalking allegations "terribly damaging to ATF," and pushing for "a more forceful rebuttal" than what the Justice Department was considering.

Read the Internal Justice Department Emails Additional Justice Department Emails

Special Counsel Burton disagreed, telling Weinstein: "Understand the concerns about pushing back on the Terry issue, but think presents significant risks and we should discuss that together in person if nec."

"What 'risk'?" U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke asked the Justice Department's Weinstein. Burke's office oversaw Fast and Furious.

"They're worried if we engage in a detailed discussion of this case with Grassley's staff, that they'll just keep pushing for more and more information. But I think we need to come down hard and firm and say that the allegation is BS," Weinstein tells Burke.

Emails indicate some Justice Department officials were concerned with making sure the facts provided to Congress were entirely accurate. One official with the Arizona U.S. Attorney's office asked whether defenses being proposed were "absolutely true." "Yes, absolutely true," answered another.

After the Justice Department's Weinstein led the internal charge to toughen ATF's defense, he received an email of appreciation from ATF's Congressional liaison Greg Rasnake, who has since left that position. "Whether or not they buy in, you are the man for supporting us like that," writes Rasnake.

Eventually, the Justice Department sent Sen. Grassley a letter stating ATF would never intentionally allow guns to walk. The Justice Department now admits that assertion was false, and Congress has been asking who's to blame.

Justice Department officials have testified that in drafting the inaccurate response, they unknowingly relied on bad information provided to them by "others."

U.S. Attorney Burke also fired off emails after ATF refused to comment on initial newspaper reports about the gunwalker scandal. Emails indicate he was upset the allegations weren't being met with a more vigorous defense.

"(ATF) got smoked today in the Arizona Republic. Just smoked," Burke writes to Justice Department Criminal Chief Lanny Breuer on Feb. 1, 2011. "Just baffling that they refuse to engage even just to protect the integrity of the agency. Seriously, I would recommend a stern missive to them." The next day, referring to a Washington Post article, Burke tells Justice Department officials, "That ATF refused to comment to the Wash Post is truly absurd. Really. Grassley's letter is outrageous and false. That ATF didn't counter that is unbelievable."

Burke resigned six months later.

More Fast and Furious coverage:

Memos contradict Holder on Fast and Furious 

Agent: I was ordered to let guns "walk" into Mexico 

Gunwalking scandal uncovered at ATF
  • Sharyl Attkisson
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.