By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Justice Department investigation into a botched operation to track guns smuggled to Mexican drug cartels was criticized by two senior Republican lawmakers who questioned its objectivity and independence.
In a letter released on Wednesday to Acting Justice Department Inspector General Cynthia Schnedar, they expressed deep concern over her decision to turn over to U.S. prosecutors in Arizona audio recordings obtained during her investigation.
Representative Darrell Issa, head of the House Oversight Committee, and Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Schnedar apparently did not consider the significant harm caused by giving the recordings to those under investigation.
They criticized the move as potentially obstructing the congressional probe into the operation because potential witnesses may have colluded about what to tell investigators.
The Obama administration has faced intense scrutiny after revelations that as many as 2,000 guns were sold to suspected gun traffickers, not properly tracked and ended up at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico.
The operation, dubbed "Fast and Furious," was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and by the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona. Both are part of the Justice Department.
The botched operation has claimed the jobs of Ken Melson, acting ATF director who moved to another Justice Department job, and the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, Dennis Burke, who resigned last month.
Attorney General Eric Holder asked the inspector general to investigate.
A spokesman for the inspector general said a copy of the recordings were provided to the U.S. attorney's office so prosecutors "could consider them in connection with the government's disclosure obligations in the pending criminal prosecutions of the gun traffickers."
Before getting the tapes, it was made clear that a copy would have to be provided to the U.S. attorney's office "because they would need to review them to satisfy any legal disclosure obligations," the spokesman said.
The lawmakers said recordings given to the U.S. attorney's office were then provided to the ATF public information officer in Phoenix and the ATF case agent on the tape. They then were leaked to the news media.
"Each of these disclosures undermines our ability to assess the candor of witnesses in our investigation and thus obstructs it," Grassley and Issa wrote.
They said the recordings were between the agent and a federal firearms licensee, who alleged that personnel in the ATF and the U.S. attorney's office sought to recruit him in an effort to obstruct the congressional inquiry.
The letter described how an ATF supervisor, in discussing the congressional inquiry, allegedly said, "We are all on the same sheet of music. And if we stay on the same sheet of music, we will be all right."
Grassley and Issa said allegations that the U.S. attorney's office and ATF personnel sought to influence witness testimony deserved "thorough, aggressive and independent investigation."
They asked Schnedar to notify them immediately if she obtained evidence of obstruction of their investigation.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Christopher Wilson)