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Outside Editorial: 'We don't know' isn't good enough from Justice Dept.

Posted: June 22, 2011 - 8:23pm  |  Updated: June 22, 2011 - 8:32pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is staffed, for the most part, by the kind of unsung heroes typical to law enforcement.

They see their job as catching the bad guys to keep their country safe. By necessity, they do much of that job out of public view. As with other branches of federal law enforcement, they ask only support from their supervisors, a paycheck and maybe a beer at the end of a long shift.

Unless you’re moving guns or stockpiling bomb-making equipment, you’re probably happy to let them go about their jobs.

But when a federal officer is killed by a military-style assault rifle intentionally allowed to reach the hands of violent Mexican drug cartels, you want answers.

Who set this goofy plan in motion? Who approved it? Who knew about it?

Who is responsible?

These are not unreasonable questions. Project Gunrunner and its Operation Fast and Furious wing sound like B-movie titles, but they had deadly consequences Dec. 14 for Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Nogales, Ariz. The serial numbers of two drug runners’ AK-47s used in that firefight were traced to a smuggler under ATF surveillance.

The problem today is that Congress, in its constitutional oversight role, is getting precious little in response from top officials at the Department of Justice, which supervises the ATF.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., managed to hold a hearing in his Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform. We share his frustration at Justice Department stonewalling then and now. Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, insist the Obama administration is turning a deaf ear to their requests for information on Gunrunner and Fast and Furious.

Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch was typically evasive at Issa’s hearing. Asked directly who authorized the program, Welch said, “We don’t know.”

This, despite Issa releasing email from ATF agents-turned-whistleblowers that indicated grave concerns with a program that basically allowed straw purchases of guns in the United States and followed them into Mexican cartel hands.

These emails also show that the two most senior ATF officials, acting Director Kenneth Melson and acting Deputy Director Bill Hoover, not only were briefed regularly on the program but were overseeing it.

Welch’s response? He’s not authorized to say.

Has Fast and Furious been halted? Welch can’t say.

So Congress, which has oversight responsibilities, has no idea how far into the Justice Department this goes. U.S. taxpayers, who fund the whole thing, are equally in the dark.

If Welch, as he says, lacks the authority, doesn’t the Obama administration owe the public something closer to candid responses?

During Issa’s hearing, Josephine Terry, Brian’s mother, was asked what she would say to those who approved Operation Fast and Furious. “I don’t know what I would say to them,” she said, “but I would like to know what they would say to me.”

Indeed, we all would.

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