U.S. Congress pulls the shades on the House of Death

The staffs of U.S. senators Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., appear to be drinking the cool-aid mixed up in the House of Death by the departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS).

Staff members from both offices were briefed last November about the details of the mass murder in Ciudad Juárez, the participation of a U.S. government informant in those murders and the subsequent cover-up carried out by the Executive Branch agencies involved in the House of Death case — including DHS’ U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio and El Paso.

The senators’ staffs also were told about the fact that a DEA agent and his family were nearly murdered as a result of the bungled drug-sting operation and that one of the narco-thugs working with the informant, another Mexican cop by the name of Miguel Loya, was allowed to escape as a direct result of the cover-up within DOJ and DHS.  

To date, according to the three members of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC) who provided the briefing, neither of the senators, or their staffs, have even bothered to contact the NSWBC members for additional follow-up information or documentation.

“They have done nothing; zilch; '0',” says Sibel Edmonds, the founder and director of the NSWBC. “I made many follow up calls: still nothing; this is outrageous.” The NSWBC is a coalition of more than 60 whistleblowers who have come together from a host of U.S. agencies, including the CIA, DHS, DOJ and NSA. Among the NSWBC's members are Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon Papers; Russ Tice, a former NSA intelligence analyst who helped to expose the Bush Administration’s illegal domestic spying program; as well as Edmonds, a former FBI language specialist who exposed major national-security breaches within the bureau.

To make matters worse, according to Sandalio Gonzalez, the former high-level DEA official who exposed the DOJ cover-up in the House of Death, one of the staff members present at the briefing in November was a DOJ attorney, Robin Ashton, who has been detailed to serve on Sen. Leahy’s staff.

It is a long-standing practice for various Executive Branch agencies, such as DOJ, to assign employees to temporary assignments with Congressional offices. Generally, the Executive Branch agency continues to pay the detailee’s salary while the individual is on assignment. The theory is that the detailees can gain a better understanding of Congress while at the same time help Congressional members gain more insight into the workings of the Executive Branch.

However, theories don’t always work out in reality, critics of the practice point out.

All three NSWBC members present at the November briefing —Edmonds, Gonzalez and Professor Bill Weaver, senior advisor to the organization — claim that Ashton was dismissive and not concerned with the allegations and evidence brought to the table at the meeting concerning the murders and subsequent cover-up by DOJ and DHS. The reason, they contend, is that Ashton’s loyalties are with DOJ by virtue of the fact that her career is tied to that agency.

Weaver claims it was clear from the start of the Nov. 21 briefing that Ashton did not see the House of Death mass murder as a big deal, even after being made aware that ICE agents and a U.S. prosecutor were aware that their informant was participating in the homicides.

“I don’t remember the precise words she used,” Weaver says, “but her comments were essentially: ‘I do not understand the concern. People are killed all the time by drug dealers. We (the U.S. government) did not really do anything (wrong). We just sat back. If we rush in every time targets broke the law, we would never be able to make cases against the big fish."

In reply to Ashton’s dismissive comments, Gonzalez says he pointed out to her that “people may get killed all the time, but the difference in this case is that the government let their informant participate in the murders.”

DOJ Insider

Ashton is far more than a low-level DOJ attorney. Until August of 2005, just prior to being detailed to Leahy’s staff, she served as deputy director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA). The EOUSA deals directly with U.S. Attorneys around the country in providing oversight and support in a variety of areas, including legal issues, personnel, management, budgeting and policy development. The EOUSA also provides staff and budgetary support for the Attorney General's Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys, which plays a key role in determining DOJ policies and programs.

The NSWBC representatives at the briefing claim that Ashton’s presence represented a major conflict of interest because two of the major players in the alleged ongoing cover-up of the DOJ’s complicity in the House of Death murders are Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden in El Paso and U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton in San Antonio. Sutton, at the time of the briefing, served as the vice chairman of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys and in late March of this year was appointed chairman of the committee.

In a nutshell, the NSWBC members showed up in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21 to meet with staff representing Grassley and Leahy expecting a fair hearing of the facts and to urge the senators to call for congressional hearings over the House of Death case. Grassley is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; Leahy serves as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, instead of a fair hearing, the NSWBC members contend they were put in the position of making their case to a connected DOJ attorney whose future career is in the hands of the very agency accused of participating in the cover-up. In fact, Ashton is slated to return this summer to DOJ, where she serves as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., according to individuals with that office.

“While with DEA, I was detailed to another agency, but I knew damn well who paid my salary and who I had to report things to,” Gonzalez stresses. “So the minute I found out who she (Ashton) was, I knew that anything I said would go right back to DOJ.”

But conflict-of-interest issues are not only surfacing in Leahy’s office. Gonzalez points out that he originally met with an investigator with Sen. Grassley’s office in late spring of 2004, shortly after it became clear that ICE agents and a U.S. prosecutor were complicit in the House of Death murders. At the time, Gonzalez says, the investigator informed him that an ICE employee was detailed to the senator’s staff.

“And he (the investigator) expressed concern to me,” Gonzalez claims, “that anything he said in a staff meeting where that ICE official was present would be reported back to ICE.”

Gonzalez adds that when he met with Grassley’s staff for the November 2005 briefing, they claimed that the files of the investigator he met with in 2004 contained no information on the House of Death case. That investigator has since left Grassley’s staff.

Tracy Schmaler, a press spokeswoman for Sen. Leahy, denies that Ashton was unconcerned with the House of Death allegations and insists that Ashton did her job properly. Schmaler also was seemingly incensed that anyone would accuse Ashton of serving the interests of DOJ while working for the Senator or of being a mole for the agency. She insists that the “burden of proof” should be on the whistleblowers to demonstrate that Ashton’s loyalties are with the Justice Department in the House of Death case.

“She (Ashton) never dealt with the (House of Death) case while at DOJ,” Schmaler claims.

Gonzalez points out, though, that as deputy director of EOUSA, Ashton would have dealt with U.S. Attorney Sutton. Gonzalez adds that it was made clear to everyone at the briefing, including Ashton, that Sutton played a key role in the cover-up of his office’s complicity in the House of Death murders.

“In the briefing (that Ashton attended), we made no bones about the fact that we were talking about Johnny Sutton,” Gonzalez says.

Schmaler refused to allow Narco News to speak with Ashton directly. In addition, though promising to check into it, she declined to discuss what action, if any, had been taken by Leahy’s office on the House of Death case.

“Sen. Grassley’s office took the lead in organizing the (November) briefing, so they would be in a better position to comment,” Schmaler said.

The press secretary for Grassley’s office, Beth Levine, when contacted, also promised to look into the status of the House of Death investigation in her office, but stressed that “just because there have been no hearings, that doesn’t mean nothing is going on.”

Well, if something is going on, it continues to be a mystery seemingly without a sense of urgency. The first of more than a dozen murders in the House of Death drug-war tragedy occurred in August 2003.

Both Schmaler and Levine failed to get back to Narco News with the promised status update on the case.

Other Priorities

Narco News made more than eight phone calls to the offices of Grassley and Leahy over the course of a week seeking information on what is being done, if anything, on the House of Death mass-murder case. Neither Schmaler or Levine seemed all too pleased with Narco News’ persistence on this matter, or our attempts to contact staff members present at the November briefing directly for comment. In any event, not one staff member, other than the press front people for Leahy and Grassley, returned calls.

After evading questions about what was being done by Leahy and Grassley in the House of Death case, Schmaler and Levine each indicated at one point, in separate phone conversations, that they did not have time to talk further and needed to move on to more pressing Capitol Hill concerns. Schmaler actually seemed to be yawning during one phone conversation.

It could be that the senators themselves are not aware of their staff members’ apparent lack of concern over murder, including the torture and slaying of U.S. citizens, and the documented trail of the cover-up within DOJ and DHS. Maybe their staffs have failed to brief them on the House of Death case because they are just too bogged down in other career-enhancing concerns now on the table, such as pursuing vote-sensitive matters like high gas prices and immigration “reform.”

After all, dead brown people — particularly Mexicans, as many of the victims were in the House of Death mass murder -- can’t vote. And in general, as evidenced by the bigotry marking the immigration controversy, brown people are deemed exploitable and disposable from the vantage point of the citadels of power.

Racism, without a doubt, is at the core of why the House of Death murders were allowed to occur in the first place, according to Gonzalez.

“If this had been a city on the Canadian border, these murders would not have happened,” Gonzalez stresses. “Our government would not allow Canadian citizens to be tortured and murdered…. But, in the House of Death case, they did let it happen because it was El Paso and Juárez and a bunch of Mexicans that they don’t give a shit about.”

As far as the ongoing cover-up in the House of Death, and the lack of will within Congress to call hearings to unravel that cover-up, that boils down to priorities. And the chief priority for the self-absorbed leadership class inside the Beltway is self-interest. After all, messing with powerful people in the Executive Branch often results in payback when it comes to other important pet projects and career objectives that might be in the works.

In that light, it’s simply not prudent for staff members to encourage their bosses to knock over an outhouse (launch congressional hearings) when it might well stink up their own backyards as well.

“Johnny Sutton is a well-wired guy, all the way to the White House,” Gonzalez says. “No one is going to go after him. That’s the bottom line.”

Then again, maybe these particular senators, Grassley and Leahy, who do have a track record, at times, of stepping up to the plate on matters of justice and human rights, will come around to seeing the importance of fighting this fight, of drawing a line in the sand when it comes to torture, murder and U.S. government complicity in those acts. Time will tell, but given the time that has already past — nearly three years since the first murder — it appears the dead have a better chance of rising from their graves.

Drug War Pretense

Regardless of how all the facts finally sort out in the House of Death in Ciudad Juárez, the sad truth is that the whole sordid affair -- the indifference, the corpses, the cover-up -- is just another tragic act in the warped war on drugs along the border.

In this case, the U.S. government was willing to look the other way as its own informant, a former Mexican cop, Guillermo Eduardo Ramírez Peyro, also known as Lalo, participated in multiple gruesome murders between August 2003 and January 2004. The bodies of a dozen victims — including Luis Padilla, a U.S. resident and father of three children — were covered in lime and dumped like trash in a shallow grave in the backyard of the House of Death on Parsioneros Street in Juárez. This act of mass murder was tolerated all so U.S. federal agents and prosecutors could line up convictions to help juice their careers.

And in order to prevent those same U.S. law enforcers from claiming victory in this bloody skirmish, the narco-traffickers attempted to strike back at the informant Lalo, who was the key witness against them. In the process, in August of 2004 at a Whataburger fast-food restaurant in El Paso, they mistakenly cut down an innocent man — a U.S. citizen and the father of a two-week old kid.

It also could be argued that, in addition to the drug dealers, even certain U.S. government officials might not mind waking up to find Lalo out of the picture, permanently. Now, both sides may get their prize, as Lalo is slated to be extradited to Mexico soon, back to a certain death at the hands of the narcos he betrayed. In that way, a critical witness to the U.S. government's complicity in mass murder in Juárez will be silenced, just like the victims in the House of Death.

All this could have been prevented if the informant had been kept under control from the start, if the U.S. law enforcers overseeing Lalo would have put people's lives before their careers.

Apparently, if we are to judge the actions to date, or inaction, of our “leaders” in the U.S. Congress, far more needless death is in the cards. But maybe in the eyes of these elected officials charged with assuring oversight of Executive Branch agencies like DOJ and DHS, mass murder along the border — even if U.S. law enforcers are complicit in that carnage — is no cause for concern.

Maybe those now seated in Congress no longer see themselves as representing all the people, but rather only as ruling over the people. From that pedestal of privilege, maybe they do not deem the torture and murder of a dozen or more brown people along the border worth their time or effort.

We can only hope that they prove that assumption wrong, but hope alone does not bring back the victims or prevent the same cruel acts from playing out again and again without consequence to those pulling the strings in this travesty of justice.

If any lesson is to be drawn from the House of Death, it is that maintaining the pretense of the war on drugs seems to be more important than human life itself.

And until our so-called leader's kick their addiction to this deadly pretense, we can be assured that, elsewhere along the border, the players in this game have already put a down payment on the next House of Death.

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