E-mails released Thursday by congressional investigators showed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives encouraged the gun dealer, whose name has been withheld, to keep selling high-powered weapons to customers he said he believed were working for Mexican drug cartels, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The intended goal of the ATF program, Project Gunrunner, was to assemble intelligence on questionable weapons sales for use in building a case against of higher-ranking members of international trafficking clans.
In one of the e-mails, the gun dealer had expressed fears the guns he was selling might be used against U.S. border agents.
"I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys," the dealer wrote in June 2010 to David Voth, the lead ATF case agent in Phoenix. "I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents' safety, because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ."
Three guns sold to suspects under the watch of Project Gunrunner have been found at the sites in Mexico bordering Arizona where two U.S. agents were killed, the Times said.
"Not only were the ATF agents who later blew the whistle [on the investigation] predicting that this operation would end in tragedy, so were the gun dealers -- even as ATF urged them to make the sales," Sen. Charles E. Grassley R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The Justice Department denies ATF sanctioned or "otherwise knowingly allowed" assault weapons to be sold to straw purchasers who took them to Mexico.