Washington -- Two AK-47 assault rifles found near where a U.S. Border Patrol officer was fatally shot were among hundreds of guns federal authorities let pass into the hands of known and suspected gun traffickers in a flawed attempt to track the weapons to Mexican drug cartels, a U.S. senator says.
Under Project Gunrunner, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed known and suspected gun smugglers to purchase hundreds of weapons in the hope that they could be traced to their ultimate destination, believed to be border region crime syndicates.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said the ATF lost track of hundreds of those guns, including the two found in Rio Rico, Arizona, at the shooting of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
"Terry lost his life in that firefight and may have been killed with one of those two rifles," Grassley wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that the ATF was "stonewalling" his investigation into the matter.
In an account published in the Los Angeles Times, the ATF said there is no evidence the guns were used to kill the agent.
And the allegation the ATF knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico is "false," according to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch.
"ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico," Welch wrote in a February 4 letter to Grassley.
On the "CBS Evening News" Thursday, an ATF whistle-blower, Agent John Dodson, said the ATF intentionally allowed guns to go into Mexico. "We've been doing it every day since I've been here," the Phoenix-based agent said. Dodson said he feels the ATF is partially to blame for the escalating violence in Mexico.
Just minutes before the CBS broadcast Thursday, ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson issued a statement saying the agency is forming a panel to "review the bureau's current firearms trafficking strategies employed by field division managers and special agents."
"This review will enable ATF to maximize its effectiveness when undertaking complex firearms trafficking investigations and prosecutions," he wrote.