AK-47-style rifles – like this one being displayed by a Phoenix-based ATF agent – have become the favorites of Mexican drug cartels. Tom Mangan/Associated Press
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A House committee chairman threatened Wednesday to hold the head of a federal law enforcement agency in contempt for not producing subpoenaed documents about a gun-smuggling operation into Mexico.

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made the threat in a lettter to Kenneth Melson, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It was the first time since 2008 that the committee cited its contempt authority in an effort to spring government records.

Issa’s committee is looking into complaints by whistleblowers within ATF who complained that the bureau allowed 1,700 guns to be sold illegally to straw buyers for more than a year in its so-called Fast and Furious operation first disclosed by the Center for Public Integrity. Two of the weapons were later recovered near the murder scene of border patrol agent Brian Terry.

The ATF contended that the investigation takes time because it was trying to gather evidence against the leaders of the gun-smuggling operation rather than prosecute lowly straw buyers.

Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich responded earlier to Issa that some of the records reveal ATF techniques that would help criminals while others involve an investigation that’s not yet complete. Based on long-standing policy, Weich said the Justice Department can’t release those documents or even confirm that they exist.

Issa, R-Calif., who subpoenaed documents on March 31, argued that an on-going investigation is not a good enough excuse to withhold records.

“The Department’s internal policy to withhold documents from what it labels ending criminal investigations may not deprive Congress from obtaining those same documents if they are pertinent to a congressional investigation,” Issa wrote, “particularly in a matter involving allegations that reckless and inappropriate decisions by top Justice Department officials may have contributed to the deaths of U.S. and Mexican citizens.”

Threatening a federal agency with contempt of Congress is rare. The last time the oversight committee raised the threat was July 2008 dealing with documents related to the disclosure from White House sources that Valerie Plame Wilson was a CIA employee. President George Bush claimed executive privilege.

The full House has to vote on contempt citations. Typically, the Justice Department enforces these citations, but in this case the Justice Department, which oversees ATF, is the agency withholding the documents.

Issa released several new documents leaked to the committee. Among them was one showing that agents arrested the alleged straw buyer who bought the AK-47s found near Terry’s murder scene the day after his shooting. It is the first concrete evidence that the shooting of Terry led authorities to finally bring charges against 34 people in the Fast and Furious case. Most were straw buyers.

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