WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn asked congressional colleagues this week to investigate whether the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) ran a gun-walking program in Texas, the latest in his months-long effort to put the heat on the Obama administration over the controversial Fast and Furious operation.
His request came the week after he sponsored a measure in the U.S. Senate that received rare bipartisan support: an oversight requirement that would help bar any future operations like the Arizona-based Fast and Furious. And it got some traction on Wednesday as two lawmakers investigating the program issued another round of questions for the U.S. Department of Justice.
The ATF operated Fast and Furious from late 2009 to earlier this year, allowing weapons to cross the Arizona border into Mexico in an effort to trace them to drug cartels. Guns tied to the operation were found near where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010.
In August, Cornyn raised concerns that ATF may have run a similar operation in Texas, something bureau officials have denied. His letter this week to the two Republican lawmakers leading a congressional probe of Fast and Furious — Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — outlined his concerns.
The second-term GOP senator and former Texas attorney general has been one of the most outspoken critics of the now-defunct program and is likely to stay that way as Republicans ratchet up pressure on the Obama administration, particularly U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose testimony before lawmakers Cornyn has criticized.
“We need to do everything we can to make sure that such a reckless operation like this one is not repeated,” Cornyn told reporters last week.
“If we get the answers and we find out who was responsible and held accountable,” he added in a television interview, “then I think that will be worth the effort.”
First, he asked the lawmakers to investigate whether the ATF ran a similar gun-walking program in Texas, as allegations by an attorney for a federally licensed gun dealer in Houston may have suggested. Cornyn, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said the Justice Department had not responded to his request this summer to tell him about any Texas-based programs.
Cornyn also asked for an investigation of whether a Texas program “may have been responsible for the murder of” a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, Jaime Zapata, in Mexico in February.
Investigators for Grassley and Issa “are anxious to hear the Justice Department’s explanation" for allegation of a Texas program, a spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee, Beth Levine, told The Tribune in an e-mail. She said the lawmakers would continue to look into the concerns Cornyn raised in the letter.
The Justice Department did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment.
On Wednesday, Grassley and Issa picked up Cornyn's inquiry and ran with it, citing the letter as they asked for answers to a long list of new questions about Zapata's death. They also cited an Oct. 11 response from an assistant attorney general who said "ongoing criminal investigations" limit what the Justice Department can say about the issue.
Beyond the letters, Cornyn's focus on the program has also included his amendment, which the Senate approved last week 99-0, as well as making Fast and Furious a consistent topic in his weekly conference call with reporters, in his public remarks and, of course, in his Twitter stream.
A Justice Department official told The Associated Press the amendment "essentially reflects DOJ policy."
Some Democrats have said the ire of Cornyn and other Republicans is misguided. Southern California Rep. Adam Schiff, for example, condemned what he called “politically motivated attacks” on Holder.
“The evidence is clear and the Attorney General has been forthright throughout — he was not briefed on the details of Operation Fast and Furious until after the serious problems became public,” Schiff said in a statement. “ … If the House majority is truly concerned about violence in Mexico and not just scoring political points, I suggest they support stronger penalties on firearm traffickers who supply vicious Mexican drug cartels with thousands of weapons.”
Texas Democrats' views on the issue vary. El Paso Rep. Silvestre Reyes told the Tribune this summer that the public shouldn’t yet jump to conclusions about Fast and Furious, while Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar called for the ATF to “come clean.”
Cornyn's position is bolstered by some ill will toward the ATF in Texas. A San Antonio gun seller sued the head of the bureau over new reporting rules that came in the wake of Fast and Furious.
In any case, Cornyn seems poised to keep pushing. In his letter to Grassley and Issa, he said his constituents deserve answers.
“Though their failure to respond is not direct evidence of malfeasance, the Department’s reluctance to address allegations of additional ‘gun-walking’ schemes in my state raises serious questions,” Cornyn wrote, “and Texans deserve a full accounting of the Department’s role in this matter.”
Keeping the pressure on the Obama administration accountable also makes Fast and Furious an appealing cudgel for Republicans, including National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Cornyn, to wield against the administration.
“Part of it is just to keep the heat on and frankly the bright light of publicity on this so we can get Eric Holder and the Department of Justice to come clean with the facts,” Cornyn told Greta Van Susteren last week after the passage of his amendment.
But ultimately, Cornyn told The Tribune in a statement, it’s about the circumstances of two suspect deaths.
“I think we could all agree that the families of Brian Terry and Jaime Zapata deserve nothing less than a full accounting of what happened from this administration,” he said.