So says the Washington Guardian, uncovering at least one of the targets of Rep. Darrell Issa’s subpoenas, and it might be a game-changer.  According to the Guardian, which says they have a copy of the memos, the ATF knew full well that guns had been walked across the border before Congress started demanding answers.  They had already begun to put whistleblower-protection processes in place to address agents who had complained to Congress over those actions before assuring Congress that no one knew about the practice:

The memos, obtained by the Washington Guardian, were triggered by the agents’ allegations, Justice officials confirmed. In them, ATF officials in Washington instructed field supervisors not to retaliate against the agents in Arizona who complained they had been ordered to let semiautomatic weapons flow to suspected straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels rather than interdicting them.

Even as the warning was being sent, Obama administration political appointees were publicly undercutting the agents’ credibility, insisting to Congress that ATF never knowingly let weapons cross the border into Mexico’s violent drug wars – a denial that turned out to be false. …

Agents who disclose illegalities or wrongdoing are protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act and “a federal agency is prohibited from retaliating against an employee for having made a protected disclosure,” warned a Feb. 9, 2011 email forwarding legal advice to all ATF field supervisors from then-Assistant Director Mark Chait.

Chait’s lawyer told the Washington Guardian his client specifically requested ATF lawyers draft the legal memo because he had learned some agents had taken their concerns about the Arizona gun sting to Congress and he did not want them punished for coming forward.

The Guardian notes that the letter gives at least one positive argument for the Obama administration — that their pledge to protect whistleblowers was taken seriously within the ATF.  However, that doesn’t address why the whistleblowers later got assigned to someone who had overtly expressed hostility and a need to retaliate against the same whistleblowing agents.  Senator Charles Grassley has already demanded an answer to that question.

One name on the Chait memo, in the CC field, will be familiar — Kenneth Melson, then the acting head of the ATF.  That makes it pretty clear that senior ATF officials knew of the whistleblowers, although the memo doesn’t show any specifics about what the whistleblowers were saying.  It predates the testimony of DoJ officials who insisted that no one knew of gunwalking, which either means they didn’t bother to ask Melson or anyone within the ATF, or they lied about it.

Which is it?  More of the documents might shed some light on that question, but the White House has asserted executive privilege to keep them from Congressional investigators.  The surfacing of this document suggests that the contents of these subpoena targets are probably already well known, but the chain of custody needs to be established.  Subsequent leaks might have increasing substantive value as part of a strategy to force compliance, but clearly there is material here that the Obama administration desperately wants to keep under wraps.  Their assertion of privilege won’t succeed, but it may be moot by the time it gets to court.  Someone wants these documents out.