If, as congrressional investigators report, the agency that's supposed to prevent guns from getting into criminals' hands instead bungled several chances to fix its Fast and Furious project and stop the flow of weapons to Mexico, it raises new questions about the ATF's competence and could intensify the Obama administration's political headaches.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives missed numerous opportunities to shut down a wayward gun-running investigation in 2010 and prevent hundreds of semiautomatic weapons bought in the United States from flowing across the border into Mexico’s violent drug wars, a joint congressional investigation has concluded.
The missed opportunities included information from a fellow federal law enforcement agency that linked gun buyers in the case to Mexican drug lords and two instances in which the main target of the probe was stopped by authorities but inexplicably released without being charged, according to the draft report from Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
The report, the first of three planned over the next several months into the bungled Fast and Furious gun operation, portrays the ATF as a bumbling agency unable to connect the dots between straw buyers of weapons in Arizona and the drug lords in Mexico whom they worked for.
And report scolds ATF supervisors from Arizona to Washington D.C. and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Phoenix for failing to appreciate that the hundreds of guns they allowed to be moved across the border over 13 months would have deadly consequences on both sides of the border. Contrary to the code name of the operation, the ATF acted in an infuriatingly slow manner to stop risky tactics, even when evidence mounted that the weapons it had allowed to go to straw buyers were being used in violent crimes, the report said.
“From the outset, the case was marred by missteps, poor judgments, and an inherently reckless strategy,” the draft report concludes. The Washington Guardian obtained the draft in advance of its official release expected later in the week.
The Fast and Furious investigation has become a black eye for the Obama administration, which denied for months that ATF agents on its watch allowed guns to “walk” to suspected straw buyers for the Mexican cartels. Eventually, it changed its story last year in the face of mounting evidence. The controversial ATF tactics were only ended after two weapons that ATF allowed to be purchased by straw buyers ended up at the murder scene of a federal border agent in December 2010.
The report assigns blame for the flawed investigative tactics to five senior ATF officials ranging from the agent in charge of the Phoenix office at the time to then-Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson. All have been moved into different jobs since the controversy began, but none as of yet has faced any discipline, the report noted.
“Greater accountability within ATF would underscore that ineffective supervision and recklessness both have consequences,” the report noted. Justice officials have said they are awaiting the results of an internal investigation by the department’s inspector general.
The House-Senate report doesn’t fully assess the conduct of senior Justice Department officials in Washington – a topic reserved for a later report – but does state that the Obama administration’s decision to create a new approach to fighting the drug wars in Mexico in 2009 created an atmosphere in which ATF agents in Phoenix felt comfortable abandoning years of practice and allowing known straw buyers to walk off with guns without interdicting them.
ATF officials have said they allowed hundreds of weapons to flow into the hands of straw buyers in hopes that it would lead to evidence that would ensnare higher-ups in the drug cartels.
“In the summer of 2009, the Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. promulgated a ‘Strategy for Combating the Mexican Cartels.’ The new aim was to zero in on the firearms trafficking networks,” the report notes. “Agents were advised that merely seizing firearms purchased illegally by straw buyers should take a back seat to gathering information in hopes of dismantling entire firearms trafficking networks.”
ATF supervisors in Phoenix worked closely with the U.S. Attorney’s office, allowing weapons to continue to flow to straw buyers while pursuing a wiretap on the grounds that listening in on phone conversation might help identify the higher-ups in the cartels that were employing the straw buyers.
But the wiretap and the continued flow of guns were unnecessary because the ATF’s colleagues in the DEA and FBI had already identified the cartel connections and even shared the information with ATF, which didn’t make the connection until much later, the report said.
“Hundreds of guns flowed to criminals” even though the “FBI and DEA had key information on the network’s connection drug cartels in Mexico by the time ATF’s wiretaps were approved,” the report laments.
Even after the wiretaps were approved and operating, ATF supervisors and federal prosecutors missed several opportunities to wrap up the work and stop the flow of weapons, the report said. They ignored or overruled repeated concerns of agents in the field who believed ATF should be interdicting the straw buyers to keep the weapons from falling into the hands of criminals, the report said.
Some ATF supervisors, who became concerned that large number of weapons had changed hands and had begun showing up in crime scenes, eventually prepared an “exit strategy” for the probe that wasn’t executed for months, it noted.
And on two occasions in April and May 2010, months before the investigation was finally concluded, the primary suspect in the case was stopped by authorities with weapons or ammunition in his possession but was allowed to go free, the report noted.
In the first instance, local Phoenix police arrested the suspect with weapons in his car that were linked to the straw buyers “but inexplicably, he was never charged,” the report notes.
If the suspect had been charged that night, it “would have prevented hundreds of guns from going to Mexico,” the report concludes.
A month later, Customs and Border Patrol officers stopped the suspect in a car again, this time with semiautomatic ammunition. ATF officials were summoned, and an agent interviewed the suspect at length.
Eventually, the suspect “went into great detail about his relationship with a cartel figure” and “admitted that his venture to Mexico was for the purpose of starting up a drug trafficking business.” Despite the admission, the ATF agent freed the suspect without charging him, securing a promise instead that he would cooperate with law enforcement.
The suspect never called ATF again to cooperate and wasn’t charged until after the investigation was closed down months later, the report said.
At the time of the second stop, “the gun trafficking ring Fast and Furious targeted had already spent more than $1 million and was still buying weapons from FFLs (federal firearms licensees) cooperating with ATF,” the report noted. “And when the case agent had an opportunity to arrest the main target, she simply let him cross the border into Mexico.”
Fast and Furious is the code name given to a federal firearms trafficking operation in Arizona in 2009-10 that let more than 1,700 semiautomatic weapons flow into the hands of straw-buyers for Mexican drug gangs with the goal of building a bigger case against the cartels.