Federal agents testified to Congress on Wednesday that their superiors told them to stand down and watch as weapons flowed from gun dealers in Arizona to criminals and violent drug cartels in Mexico part of a now-discredited operation designed to catch gunrunners.
Named Fast and Furious, the operation, led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been disavowed by President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who said it was running without their approval.
The program was halted after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a December firefight, and authorities say two guns found at the scene were traced back to Fast and Furious straw purchases.
“We weren’t giving guns to people who were hunting bear, we were giving guns to people who were killing humans,” said ATF Group Supervisor Peter Forcelli, who said he objected to the program as soon as he learned about it after being transferred to Phoenix from New York.
He and two fellow agents testified that the operation had little chance of achieving its objective of ensnaring Mexican drug cartels, since those buyers were so many steps removed from the U.S. purchases. That made OK’ing risky gun purchases all the more dangerous, they said.
Special Agent John Dodson said the operation facilitated the sale of about 2,500 firearms, and while hundreds have been recovered there could be as many as 1,800 of them still out. Agent Dodson said of those, two-thirds are likely in Mexico and the rest still in the U.S.
When agents objected to the operation, “We were told to just fall in line and do what we were told,” said Special Agent Olindo “Lee” Casa.
House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, California Republican, released emails that he said show that senior ATF leaders were regularly following the operation, including one email that showed acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson wanted to be able to watch the cameras hidden in gun shops himself over the Internet, so he could see the straw buyers walk out with the weapons.
Mexican government officials were enraged by the operation, and Mr. Holder has asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate it.
But Mr. Issa has his panel looking into the matter as well, and he has been sparring with the Justice Department, which says it is worried about spoiling the ongoing criminal case against those accused of killing Mr. Terry.
Mr. Issa held up redacted documents sent to the committee by the Justice Department that had entire pages blacked out.
“If you’re going to count pages like this as discovery, you should be ashamed of yourself,” he told Ronald Weich, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, who also appeared before the panel.
Mr. Weich, who used to work as a Senate staffer, said the department has promised to get to the bottom of the operation and deflected most other questions. He said that investigation will include who the highest-ranking official was who authorized the program.
Mr. Weich also defended two earlier letters he had sent Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, that said the administration did not knowingly let guns slip across the border. Mr. Weich said that information was correct at the time he sent the letters, though he acknowledged the agents’ testimony raises questions about their accuracy now.
Mr. Terry’s mother, sister and cousin also testified at the hearing, saying they have not been told much about the contraband firearms found at the scene of his death.
Robert Heyer, Mr. Terry’s cousin, summed up the tragedy of his relative’s death in mid-December with a poignant story.
“Brian’s attention to detail had insured that all the Christmas gifts he had meticulously selected for his family had already been bought and sent in the mail prior to his arrival,” Mr. Heyer said. “Brian did ultimately come home that Christmas; we buried him not far from the house that he was raised in just prior to Christmas Day.”
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