(CNSNews.com) – Dennis K. Burke, who as a lawyer for the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1990s was a key player behind the enactment of the 1994 assault-weapons ban, and who then went on to become Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano’s chief of staff, and a contributor to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential primary campaign, and then a member of Obama’s transition team focusing on border-enforcement issues, ended up in the Obama administration as the U.S. attorney in Arizona responsible for overseeing Operation Fast and Furious.
When Obama nominated Burke to be U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, Burke told the Arizona Capitol Times he believed he understood what the president and his attorney general wanted him to do.
“There’s clearly been direction provided already by President Obama and Attorney General Holder as to what they want to be doing, and this is an office that is at the center of the issues of border enforcement,” said Burke.
Over the course of several days, CNSNews.com left multiple telephone messages with Burke for comment on this story. He did not respond.
Dennis K. Burke has had a long career working as an aide and political appointee to Democratic elected officials. From 1989 to 1994, he was a counsel for the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, working in that capacity for several years on an assault-weapons ban, which was finally enacted on Sept. 13, 1994 as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That act expired on Sept. 13, 2004. (See NYT: Dennis Burke, Sen. DeConcini, Weapons Ban.pdf)
From 1994-95, Burke served in the Clinton Justice Department in the Office of Legislative Affairs, and in 1997-99, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Arizona.
From 1999 to 2003, Burke was chief deputy and special assistant to Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano.
In 2003, when Napolitano became governor, Burke became her chief of staff. He stayed in that job until the fall of 2008, when he left to help Democratic political campaigns, including then-Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign.
Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that on Jan. 9, 2008, while working as Gov. Napolitano’s chief of staff, Burke contributed $2,000 to then-Sen Obama’s presidential primary campaign. Since 1997, according to FEC records, Burke has contributed a total of $16,350 to various Democratic candidates.
After Obama was elected in November 2008, Burke joined his presidential transition team, serving on the Immigration Policy Working Group.
Eight days before Obama’s inauguration, on Jan. 12, 2009–while Burke was working on the transition team–Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. At that meeting, Obama “pledged” to take action to stop the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico.
Obama also decided to put Burke’s old boss, incoming Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in a leadership role in making the gun-trafficking problem a top priority.
“President-elect Obama expressed support for efforts in the border states in both the United States and Mexico to eradicate drug-related violence and stop the flow of guns and cash,” incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement at the time. “He told President Calderón that he intends to ask the Secretary of Homeland Security to lead an effort to increase information sharing to strengthen those efforts. He pledged to take more effective action from the United States to stem the flow of arms from the United States to Mexico.”
When Napolitano became Homeland Security secretary, Burke moved from the Obama transition team to become her senior adviser. On Feb. 25, 2009, a little more than a month after Obama had made his “pledge” to Calderon, Napolitano testified in the House Homeland Security Committee. She stressed that stopping the flow of guns to Mexico was a top priority of the Obama administration and key focus of her work.
Responding to a question about violence on the border, Napolitano said the administration was going to work with the Mexican government on the issue. Then she said: “Secondly, it is looking at, government-wide, at what we can do to stop the southbound export of weaponry, particularly assault-type weapons and grenades that are being used in that drug war.”
Napolitano further noted that drug cartels were targeting Mexican government officials and law enforcement officers, and that, given the seriousness of the threat, Obama’s national security adviser, the attorney general, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and Customs (of which the Border Patrol is part) would all be working on the issue.
“I’ve met with the attorney general of Mexico and the ambassador already,” said Napolitano during the February 2009 hearing. “One of the things that I particularly am focused on is southbound traffic in guns, particularly assault weapons, and cash that are being used to funnel and fund these very, very violent cartels.”
The same day Napolitano testified in the Homeland Security Committee, Attorney General Holder addressed the issue of drug-trafficking-related gun violence in northern Mexico. He said he had had conversations about the issue with the Mexican attorney general and that the Obama administration believed that re-instating the assault-weapons ban in the United States–the one Dennis Burke had initially helped push through as Senate aide in 1990s–would help the situation in Mexico.
“Well, as President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons,” Holder said. “I think that will have a positive impact in Mexico, at a minimum.”
Four-and-a-half months later, on July 10, 2009, Obama nominated Burke to be the U.S. attorney in Arizona. The Senate confirmed Burke on Sept. 15 of that year.
It was in July 2010, after his nomination as U.S. attorney, that Burke told the Arizona Capitol Times that he had “been working on homeland security and border enforcement issues” during the transition, and that there had “clearly been direction provided already by President Obama and Attorney General Holder as to what they want to be doing.”
“What I hope to do, if confirmed by the Senate,” Burke told the paper, “is to ensure that those plans and strategies are being implemented and we’re moving quickly on prosecutions.”
After the nomination, former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) had high praise for Burke’s work in getting the assault weapons ban through Congress back in the 1990s.
“We ended up getting senators who had never voted for a gun bill, like Lloyd Benson of Texas and Sam Nunn of Georgia and Al D’Amato of New York, who were friends of mine that I worked real hard,” DeConcini told the Arizona Capitol Times. “But Dennis worked the staff. He was responsive to them and several of the senators mentioned to me what a great staffer you’ve got there, and I said, ‘Boy, you’re telling me.’”
The Arizona Republic has reported that “DeConcini said Burke fostered the measure in concert with a key figure in the White House, policy analyst Rahm Emanuel, who years later would become chief of staff for President Obama. … ‘Dennis was the one who worked with everyone on the Judiciary Committee to line up these members and votes,’ DeConcini said. ‘Dennis had all these pictures of these guns–the Streetsweepers and the AK-47s. And it passed by one vote. A lot of it was not my eloquence on the bill, it was stuff that Dennis had done.’”
Six weeks after Burke was confirmed, on Oct. 26, 2009, Eric Holder named him to the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC) of U.S. Attorneys. In his capacity as an adviser to Holder, Burke chaired the AGAC subcommittee on border and immigration law enforcement while Operation Fast and Furious was happening.
The same month that Burke joined Holder’s advisory committee with a specific responsibility to report to Deputy Attorney General David Ogden on border and immigration enforcement, Ogden’s office made a significant change in the federal government’s strategy for dealing with gun-trafficking on the Mexican border.
“This new strategy directed federal law enforcement to shift its focus away from seizing firearms from criminals as soon as possible, and to focus instead on identifying members of trafficking networks,” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa wrote in a May 3 memo to other members of his committee, summarizing what the committee had learned about Fast and Furious.
“The Office of the Deputy Attorney General shared this strategy with the heads of many Department components, including ATF,” said Issa.
The next month, November 2009, the ATF in Arizona moved forward with the new strategy by creating Operation Fast and Furious.
“Members of the ATF Phoenix Field Division, led by Special Agent in Charge Bill Newell, became familiar with this new strategy and used it in creating Fast and Furious,” Issa wrote in his May 3 memo. “In mid-November 2009, just weeks after the strategy was issued, Fast and Furious began. Its objective was to establish a nexus between straw purchasers of firearms in the United States and Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) operating on both sides of the United States-Mexico border.”
“Straw purchasers,” Issa explained, “are individuals who are legally entitled to purchase firearms for themselves, but who unlawfully purchase weapons with the intent to transfer them to someone else, in this case DTOs or other criminals.”
Remarkably, under Operation Fast and Furious, the ATF deliberately allowed guns to move south across the U.S.-Mexico border and into the hands of the drug cartels. Weapons were allowed to be sold to straw purchasers with the intent of tracing the guns to the cartels.
“During Fast and Furious, ATF agents used an investigative technique known as ‘gunwalking’–that is, allowing illegally purchased weapons to be transferred to third parties without attempting to disrupt or deter the illegal activity,” Issa wrote in the May 3 memo. “ATF agents abandoned surveillance on known straw purchasers after they illegally purchased weapons that ATF agents knew were destined for Mexican drug cartels.”
The purpose of the operation was to trace the guns recovered from crimes scenes “to their original straw purchaser, in an attempt to establish a connection between that individual and the DTO.”
The ATF Phoenix Field Division applied to Justice Department headquarters to become an “Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force” (OCDETF) case. In preparing their application in early January 2009, the ATF in Phoenix wrote a memo explaining the investigative technique of Fast and Furious.
The application for Fast and Furious was approved and, in January 2010, as Issa stated in his memo, it “became a prosecutor-led OCDETF Strike Force case, meaning that ATF would join with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement under the leadership of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona.”
In other words, it was under the leadership of Dennis Burke.
“Although ATF was the lead law enforcement agency for Fast and Furious, its agents took direction from prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Issa says in his May 3 memo. “The lead federal prosecutor for Fast and Furious was Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, who played an integral role in the day-to-day, tactical management of the case.”
Issa states in his memo that Burke’s U.S. attorney’s office made it more difficult for ATF agents to interdict guns.
“Many ATF agents working on Operation Fast and Furious came to believe that some of the most basic law enforcement techniques used to interdict weapons required the explicit approval of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and specifically from Hurley,” Issa wrote. “On numerous occasions, Hurley and other federal prosecutors withheld this approval, to the mounting frustration of ATF agents. The U.S. Attorney’s Office chose not to use other available investigative tools common in gun trafficking cases, such as civil forfeitures and seizure warrants, during the seminal periods of Fast and Furious.”
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office advised ATF that agents needed to meet unnecessarily strict evidentiary standards in order to speak with suspects, temporarily detain them, or interdict weapons,” Issa said. “ATF’s reliance on this advice from the U.S. Attorney’s Office during Fast and Furious resulted in many lost opportunities to interdict weapons.”
A report on Fast and Furious released by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Democrats in January 2012, indicates that on Jan. 5, 2010, officials from the ATF Phoenix office met with Assistant U.S. Attorney Hurley and determined that the gun-trafficking investigation should continue because it wasn’t ready for prosecution. The Democrat report quotes a briefing paper prepared by the ATF three days after the meeting–which would be Jan. 8, 2010–that says U.S. Attorney Burke was briefed on the matter and agreed that the investigation should continue.
“Investigative and prosecutions strategies were discussed and a determination was made that there was minimal evidence at this time to support any type of prosecution,” said the ATF briefing paper, “therefore, additional firearms purchases should be monitored and additional evidence continued to be gathered. This investigation was briefed to United States Attorney Dennis Burke, who concurs with the assessment of his line prosecutors and fully supports the continuation of this investigation.”
Eight days after this briefing paper was produced, on Jan. 16, 2010, straw buyers bought three assault-weapon rifles, two of which would figure prominently in the unraveling of the program. They were the weapons that would later be found at the scene of the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
On. Nov. 24, 2010, just a few weeks before Terry was murdered, Burke–who had begun his career in public service working to enact an assault-weapons ban–had an email exchange with another U.S. attorney about an investigation he was working on that involved “straw purchasing of assault weapons.”
“What a great investigation. What is the ETI (estimated time of indictment!)” U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan for the Western District of Washington said to Burke in an email.
Burke responded, “Would love to chat. We are about to indict around [REDACTED] clowns for a Gun Trafficking to Mexico operation. It’s a T-III investigation that we have been working w/ATF for a long time and IRS is all over some money laundering charges. It’s going to bring a lot of attention to straw purchasing of assault weapons. Some of the weapons bought by these clowns in Arizona have been directly traced to murders of elected officials in Mexico by the Cartels, so Katie-bar-the-door when we unveil this baby.”
The e-mail exchange, with the subject line “Gun Shows,” did not specifically mention Operation Fast and Furious.
Operation Fast and Furious was halted after Dec. 14, 2010 after two of the guns that a straw buyer had been allowed to purchase during the operation ended up at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Fast and Furious later became the subject of a congressional investigation, and an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.
On Dec. 14, the same day of Terry’s murder, Burke sent an email replying to an e-mail from Monty Wilkinson, Attorney General Holder’s deputy chief of staff. In this email, Burke said his office had a large firearms trafficking case that he wanted to discuss. In a follow up e-mail the next day–Dec. 15, 2010–Burke alerted Wilkinson that Agent Terry had been murdered. Wilkinson responded, “Tragic, I’ve alerted the AG, the Acting DAG, Lisa, etc.”
The exchanges between Burke and Holder’s deputy chief of staff at the time of Agent Terry’s murder are reported in the report published by the committee Democrats.
“Several hours later on December 15, 2010, U.S. Attorney Burke learned that
Agent Terry had been murdered,” says the Democratic report. “He alerted Mr. Wilkinson, who replied, ‘Tragic,
I’ve alerted the AG, the Acting DAG, Lisa, etc.’”
“Later that same day, U.S. Attorney Burke learned that two firearms found at Agent Terry’s murder scene had been purchased by a suspect in Operation Fast and Furious,” says the Democratic report. “He sent an email to Mr. Wilkinson forwarding this information and wrote: ‘The guns found in the desert near the murder [sic] BP officer connect back to the investigation we were going to talk about—they were AK-47’s purchased at a
Phoenix gun store.’ Mr. Wilkinson replied, ‘I’ll call tomorrow.’
Despite this email from Wilkinson, Burke told the committee he did not recall actually having such a phone conversation, and the Department of Justice told the committee that Wilksonson does not recall making the call. Also Attorney General Holder himself testified that his deputy chief of staff never told him about the tie between the gun-trafficking investigation and Agent Terry’s murder.
“In his interview with Committee staff, U.S. Attorney Burke stated that he did not recall having any subsequent conversation with Mr. Wilkinson that ‘included the fact that Fast and Furious guns were found at the scene’ of Agent Terry’s murder,” the Democrat report said.
“In a November 2011 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Charles Grassley asked Attorney General Holder, ‘Did Mr. Wilkinson say anything to you about the connection between Agent Terry’s death and the ATF operation?’”
The Democratic report says: “Attorney General Holder responded, ‘No, he did not.” In a January 27, 2011, letter to the Committee, the Department stated that Mr. Wilkinson ‘does not recall a follow-up call with Burke or discussing this aspect of the matter with the Attorney
Brian Terry’s murder caused an apparent change of plans for the Justice Department.
“Washington-based Justice Department officials had earlier discussed bringing Attorney General Eric Holder to Phoenix for a triumphant press conference with Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke to herald the conclusion of the Department’s flagship firearms trafficking case,” said a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee memo from May 3, 2012. “In the aftermath of Agent Terry’s death, the task of announcing indictments at a press conference fell to ATF Phoenix Division Special Agent in Charge William Newell and Burke. Holder did not attend.
“At the press conference on January 25, 2011, Newell triumphantly announced the indictment of 20 members of an arms trafficking syndicate that had been supplying weapons to the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s largest and most powerful cartel led by the notorious Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman,” the May 3 memo said.
When Newell was asked if ATF agents purposefully allowed weapons to enter Mexico, he responded, “Hell no.”
Two days after the press conference, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote then-Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson about reports from whistleblowers regarding gunwalking and Agent Terry’s death.
Allegations of gunwalking “are based on categorical falsehoods,” Burke said in a Jan. 31, 2011 e-mail to Jason Weinstein, the deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division.
Days later, on Feb. 4, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich responded to Grassley denying that the Justice Department “sanctioned” the sale of guns to people they believed were going to deliver them to Mexican drug cartels.
As the scandal began to build by that summer, Brian Terry’s mother–Josephine Terry–testified at the hearing of the House Oversight Committee. The mother of the slain Border Patrol agent told the committee that Burke informed the family of the agent’s death, but did not provide details about Operation Fast and Furious.
“He was just trying to explain to us exactly what happened and–roundabout way–we really never got anything out of the visit that he did have,” Josephine Terry told the committee on June 15, 2011. Asked how she found out about Fast and Furious, she responded, “Most of it I heard is from the media. We haven’t really got anything direct–phone calls or nothing from anybody.”
At the same hearing, Weich, who wrote the Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Grassley, told the committee, “Everything that we say is true to the best of our knowledge at the time we say it. As more facts come out, obviously our understanding of the situation is enhanced.”
On June 29, 2011, a reporter asked the Oversight Committee about leaked documents related to whistleblower ATF Agent John Dodson.
“Congressional investigators later determined that the individual who was behind the leaked documents was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, Dennis Burke–the Obama Administration political appointee who led the office in charge of Operation Fast and Furious,” said Issa’s May 3 Oversight Committee memo.
“Burke later testified that the reporter contacted him, and that he believed the reporter had already seen the documents or had them read to him from someone else in the Department of Justice. Instead of e-mailing the documents to the reporter in Washington, Burke, who was in Arizona at the time, e-mailed them to a friend of his in Washington, who then printed out the documents and then delivered them to the reporter personally,” Issa said in his May 3 memo. “These efforts successfully kept Burke’s fingerprints off of the leak until he publicly admitted his role more than two months after his August 2011 resignation as blame for Fast and Furious spread.”
On Aug. 18, 2011, House Oversight Committee staff interviewed Burke. They asked him: “To your knowledge as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, did the highest levels of the Department of Justice authorize [the] non-interdiction of weapons, cutting off of surveillance, as an investigative tactic in Operation Fast and Furious?”
Burke responded, “I have no knowledge of that.”
The committee also asked, “Did you ever authorize those tactics?”
Burke answered, “No.”
During that same Aug. 18, 2011 interview, the committee staff asked Burke: “And did anyone ever—from the Department of Justice, Main Justice I will call it–ever tell you that you were authorized to allow weapons to cross the border when you otherwise would have had a legal authority to seize or interdict them because they were a suspected straw purchase or it was suspected that they were being trafficked in a firearms scheme?”
Burke answered, “I have no recollection of ever being told that.”
Twelve days after this interview, on Aug. 30, 2011, Burke resigned as U.S. attorney. Burke’s assistant U.S. attorney, Emory Hurley, the lead prosecutor in Operation Fast and Furious, also resigned, as did ATF Director Melson.
During an Oct. 19, 2011 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley asked Burke’s old boss, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, “Have you had any communications with Mr. Burke about Operation Fast and Furious?”
Napolitano said, “No.”
Grassley followed up: “So you then obviously didn’t talk to him, anything about Agent Terry’s death?”
Napolitano said that after Agent Terry was killed, “I went to Arizona a few days thereafter to meet with the FBI agents and the assistant U.S. attorneys who were actually going to look for the shooters. At that time, nobody had done the forensics on the guns and ‘Fast and Furious’ was not mentioned. But I wanted to be sure that those responsible for his death were brought to justice, and that every DOJ resource was being brought to bear on that topic. So I did have conversations in–it would have been December of ’09 [actually 2010]–about the murder of Agent Terry. But at that point in time, there, nobody knew about Fast and Furious.”
It was not until Dec. 2, 2011 that the Justice Department withdrew its Feb. 4, 2011 letter from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich to Grassley in which DOJ had denied that gun-walking had occurred.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has subpoenaed about 100,000 documents from the Department of Justice. The department has produced about 7,600 documents. The committee believes that is insufficient.
Last week, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted on a resolution of contempt against Attorney General Holder for withholding documents that the committee has subpoenaed.
Just hours before the vote, on June 20, Deputy Attorney General James Cole notified the committee that President Barack Obama was invoking executive privilege to deny the committee access to the documents.
On June 28, the full House of Representatives voted, 256-67, with 17 Democrats joining the Republican majority, to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to release the documents requested by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.