America's firearms watchdog allowed weapons to flow in, failed to catch ringleaders, then tried a cover-up
By Guy Adams
The lethal fallout from a botched operation by the US Department of Justice which allowed almost 2,000 illegally purchased firearms to be transported from the streets of Arizona to drug gangs in Mexico has been laid bare in a scathing Congressional report, which concludes that it resulted in countless deaths.
A mixture of arrogance, over-confidence, and staggering ineptitude by the Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [ATF] was outlined in a 51-page investigation by two Republican members of a House panel charged with getting to the bottom of what went wrong during a two-year operation called "Fast and Furious".
It tells how, between 2009 and this year, the ATF instructed agents to turn a blind eye to hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles, sniper rifles, and revolvers purchased from gunshops in Phoenix and en route to Mexico. They hoped to eventually recover them from crime scenes and build a complex conspiracy case that might take down the leaders of a major drug cartel.
In the event, the operation resulted in the arrest of a handful of small-time crooks. But it exacerbated an already-huge spike in violence on both sides of the border. Two of the guns allowed to "walk" into the hands of criminals were used in a shoot-out that killed a US border patrol agent, Brian Terry.
The report describes his death as "a preventable tragedy", detailing how many of the ATF agents involved in Fast and Furious began to object to what they saw as the "reckless" nature of the operation, which conflicted with all known protocol and may turn out to have been illegal. But when they raised their concerns, they faced "punishment and retaliation" from their superiors.
It also highlights the symbiotic nature of the deadly drug trade between the US and Mexico, which has resulted in approximately 38,000 deaths since 2007. Cartels make their money smuggling cocaine and cannabis north from Mexico, and simultaneously equip their private armies with assault weapons purchased thanks to America's notoriously relaxed gun laws.
Fast and Furious revolved around so-called "straw" purchases of firearms, in which a buyer purchase military-grade hardware from a gun-store with the intention of illegally passing it to a criminal third party. ATF agents who track suspected straw purchases typically run intensive surveillance operations allowing them to arrest suspects and recover the guns. During the Fast and Furious operation they were instructed to simply let the weapons disappear.
A record was kept of their serial numbers. The idea was that this would later allow agents to link individual weapons to particular crime scenes. Somehow, this was supposed to help the ATF build up a nuanced picture of the complex structure of a major drug cartel, which would in turn lead to high-level arrests. But it wasn't to be.
"Both line agents and gun dealers who co-operated with the ATF repeatedly expressed concerns", about the operation, the report says. "But ATF supervisors did not heed those warnings. Instead, they told agents to follow orders because this was sanctioned from above."
In total, agents watched at least 1,730 guns flood on to the black market, knowing they would be used to commit murders and other violent crimes. Their concerns about the policy were ignored. In one email to field staff printed in the report, ATF supervisor David Voth suggested that staff who objected to his orders would be fired.
"I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty arguing, rumours, or other adolescent behavior," he wrote. "We are all adults, we are all professionals, and we have an exciting opportunity to use the biggest tool in our law-enforcement tool box. If you don't think this is fun, you are in the wrong line of work, period!"
John Dodson, a special agent from Phoenix who eventually blew the whistle on the "flawed" operation, told congressmen his superiors would be "giddy" with delight when "their" guns were found at a crime scene in Mexico, because they believed it "validated" their tactic. With regard to potential loss of life, an ATF boss told him: "if you are going to make an omelette, you need to scramble some eggs."
On 14 December, disaster struck when the US border patrol guard, Brian Terry, was killed during a shootout with suspected illegal aliens on the Arizona border. His killers dropped their rifles to flee faster. Two of the weapons were AK-47s which had been intentionally allowed to walk during Fast and Furious.
Rather than admit to any mistake, the ATF embarked on a cover-up. William Newell, the special agent in charge of the operation, ordered the arrest of 20 of the people agents had been watching buy weapons for months. Then, although not one senior cartel member was arrested, he held a press conference declaring the operation a success.
Newell was then asked if any weapons had been deliberately allowed to end up in the hands of criminals. He replied, "Hell no!" The report describes that statement as untrue and "shocking." It alleges that the Department of Justice continued to attempt a cover-up for several months.
The fallout from the report's publication remains to be seen. It was written by two Republican congressmen, Darryl Issa and Charles Grassley. Some right-wing commentators have suggested that Fast and Furious was sanctioned by the Obama administration in an effort to justify tightening US gun laws. But the White House has said it had no direct knowledge of the operation.