By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The acting head of the U.S. firearms agency admitted during secret talks with Congress that mistakes were made in a botched operation to track the illegal movement of guns to Mexico, lawmakers said on Wednesday.
The operation, dubbed "Fast and Furious," has put the Obama administration on the defensive, provoking questions about who knew what and when within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Justice Department, as well as questions about their cooperation with Congress.
Congressional investigators interviewed acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson on the July 4 holiday after he agreed to appear. He had his own lawyer present rather than counsel from ATF or the Justice Department, who had planned to accompany him on July 13 for an interview.
"He was candid in admitting mistakes that his agency made and described various ways he says that he tried to remedy the problems," two senior lawmakers who have been investigating the failed program said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
The two lawmakers, Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House of Representatives' Oversight Committee, revealed for the first time the ATF chief's side.
Neither was present when Melson was questioned but investigators for both Republicans and Democrats were present.
Melson also told the investigators he had discovered other law enforcement agencies had had critical information that they did not share about their targets and that he had been ordered by the Justice Department not to respond to inquiries.
At issue is an undercover sting to catch gun buyers on the U.S. border who were smuggling them illegally to Mexico for drug cartels. Authorities hoped the program would help track the guns to cartel leaders and help stem the flow of weapons.
The political fallout from the operation is growing. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of stalling in turning over relevant documents, questions have been raised at White House daily briefings and even President Barack Obama was asked about it at a news conference last week.
He said it would not have been "an appropriate step" for the ATF to allow the weapons to be smuggled across the border.
Mexican authorities have complained bitterly about the thousands of guns that cross the border from the United States each year and want Washington to do more to stem the flow.
JUSTICE DEPT SAYS COOPERATING
A senior Justice Department official, Ronald Weich, fired back a letter insisting they were cooperating, but at the same time did not want to jeopardize its own probe. He also noted that Melson talked to investigators the day before his formal interview for three hours.
"We reject entirely any suggestion that our extraordinary efforts have been designed to limit -- rather than facilitate -- the committee's access to information," Weich said, adding that scores of documents have been turned over to Congress.
Lawmakers have blasted the administration over the sting, particularly in the wake of the discovery that two weapons from the program were found at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed in a shootout with illegal immigrants.
It still has not been revealed whether either of those weapons killed the agent, Brian Terry. The Justice Department's inspector general is also investigating the matter.
According to Grassley and Issa, Melson said during his interview that ATF was not given crucial information that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration already knew about key gun traffickers.
"Mr. Melson said that he learned from ATF agents in the field that information obtained by these agencies could have had a material impact on the Fast and Furious investigation as far back as late 2009 or early 2010," Issa and Grassley said.
Further, Melson also told lawmakers that he did not review the details of the program until after the controversy erupted, and that "he was sick to his stomach when he obtained those documents and learned the full story," they said.
He said he became aware of the weapons being smuggled only after Terry was killed. He also said the managers involved in the operation were being reassigned, Issa and Grassley said.
Melson also told the lawmakers that he provided information to the Justice Department's inspector general and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, drawing further ire from Grassley and Issa because they have not received those documents.
"If his account is accurate, then ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DOJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand. That approach distorted the truth and obstructed our investigation," they said.
(Editing by Ross Colvin and Eric Walsh)