One of Washington’s most time-honored rituals is the Friday Night Document Dump, in which the Administration quietly drops a garbage bag full of potentially controversial documents on the back stoop and hopes the big media organizations don’t notice. Last week’s dump involved a pile of emails between a White House staffer and one of the top ATF agents involved in “Operation Fast and Furious.” CBS News reports:
The documents show extensive communications between then-ATF Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix office Bill Newell – who led Fast and Furious – and then-White House National Security Staffer Kevin O’Reilly. Emails indicate the two also spoke on the phone. Such detailed, direct communications between a local ATF manager in Phoenix and a White House national security staffer has raised interest among Congressional investigators looking into Fast and Furious. Newell has said he and O’Reilly are long time friends.
Investigators previously got their hands on an email from Newell to O’Reilly, in which the ATF agent said “You didn’t get these from me,” and proceeded to discuss “gunwalking” operations in a roundabout way. These operations, of which “Fast and Furious” is the most infamous example, allowed Mexican drug cartels to buy weapons from American gun stores under the watchful eye of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
The idea was to track the guns to their ultimate end users and bust them for firearms violations… something that almost never actually happened, as thousands of “walked” guns are still missing. Congressional investigators have learned there were never any reliable procedures in place to track the guns, ATF agents were told to stand down when they tried to track the cartels’ gun buyers, and in at least two incidents, the cartel gun buyer was actually an undercover ATF agent. Over two hundred Mexicans were killed with these “walked” guns, along with a United States Border Patron agent.
Here’s how things went back in July, when Representatives Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) of the House Oversight Committee grilled Special Agent in Charge Newell about his “you didn’t get these from me” email to White House National Security staffer O’Reilly:
LABRADOR: Special Agent Newell, do you know who Kevin O’Reilly is?
NEWELL: Yes, Sir.
LABRADOR: What’s the nature of your relationship with him?
NEWELL: I’ve known Kevin for ‑ I’d say probably 10‑12 years?
LABRADOR: How often do you communicate with him?
NEWELL: Oh, I haven’t communicated with him in a while but probably three or four times a year or something like that. Or maybe ‑ maybe more depending on him reaching out to me.
LABRADOR: Isn’t it a little bit unusual for a special agent in charge of an ATF field division to have direct email contact with the national security staff at the White House?
NEWELL: He’s ‑ he’s a friend of mine.
LABRADOR: How many times did you talk to him about this case?
NEWELL: The specifics of this case? I don’t think I ‑‑ I mean ‑‑ I don’t think I had one specific conversation with him about the specifics of this case.
LABRADOR: OK. Who …
ISSA (?): Would the gentleman allow me to help him a little? Not that you need it, but could you take the word specific out and ‑ and answer the general ‑‑ did you talk to him about this case?
NEWELL: I might have talked to him about this case. Yes, Sir.
ISSA(?): Do you know when that was?
NEWELL: It was probably ‑‑ I ‑‑ as I recall I think it was during the summer ‑‑ it might have been the summer or early fall of 2010.
(Emphasis mine.) It was just a little back-channel heads-up between longtime friends! You’d never guess from Newell’s testimony to House Oversight that he ended up discussing the flow of American guns into Mexico with O’Reilly for over a month, in a blizzard of emails that included a flowchart. It’s funny that Newell had such a hard time remembering the sizable volume of correspondence CBS News pulled out of this week’s document dump:
The email exchanges span a little over a month last summer. They discuss ATF’s gun trafficking efforts along the border including the controversial Fast and Furious case, though not by name. The emails to and from O’Reilly indicate more than just a passing interest in the Phoenix office’s gun trafficking cases. They do not mention specific tactics such as “letting guns walk.”
A lawyer for the White House wrote Congressional investigators: “none of the communications between ATF and the White House revealed the investigative law enforcement tactics at issue in your inquiry, let alone any decision to allow guns to ‘walk.'”
Among the documents produced: an email in which ATF’s Newell sent the White House’s O’Reilly an “arrow chart reflecting the ultimate destination of firearms we intercepted and/or where the guns ended up.” The chart shows arrows leading from Arizona to destinations all over Mexico.
In response, O’Reilly wrote on Sept. 3, 2010 “The arrow chart is really interesting – and – no surprise – implies at least that different (Drug Trafficking Organizations) in Mexico have very different and geographically distinct networks in the US for acquiring guns. Did last year’s TX effort develop a similar graphic?”
This is simply impossible to square with Newell’s earlier testimony before House Oversight. As the White House rushed to point out, there is no specific mention of the code name “Fast and Furious” in these emails, but Newell did send O’Reilly a photo of a menacing .50 caliber sniper rifle that was part of another, smaller gun walking called “Wide Receiver,” run out of the ATF’s Phoenix office.
There have been two competing theories about the Gun Walker program, which disintegrated in a rush of institutional panic after weapons from Operation Fast and Furious were found at the scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder. One explanation holds that it was essentially well-intentioned, but the execution was horribly bungled, and the intense Obama Administration cover-up is meant to protect them from charges of deadly ineptitude.
The other, much more sinister theory is that “gun walking” was intended to pump Mexico full of American guns for propaganda purposes, enabling U.S. gun-control advocates to point at all those weapons flowing across the border when they push for more restrictive American laws. As determined investigators chisel through the Administration stone wall and uncover more details of the operation and cover-up, the relatively benign “incompetence” explanation becomes increasingly difficult to believe.
These emails between Newell and O’Reilly add further weight to the “propaganda” theory. O’Reilly sounds like a grad student expressing gratitude for information that supports the thesis of his term paper. Newell doesn’t seem interested in boasting of the ATF’s efforts to stop the activity portrayed in his flow chart.
It would be useful to conclusively determine whether Newell ever discussed the mechanics of gun walking with his old pal O’Reilly, the guy he maybe talks to three or four times a year… except when he’s pumping out a flood of emails about the operation nobody expected to blossom into a gigantic scandal. Unfortunately, the White House is still claiming executive privilege on an unspecified number of key documents.
Also, O’Reilly just happens to be on assignment in Iraq, and is therefore unavailable for comment. Too bad the Most Transparent Administration In History fought tooth and nail to delay releasing every single byte of Fast and Furious information, or the House Oversight Committee might have been able to chat with O’Reilly before he jetted off to Mesopotamia.