Fast and Furious Backpedaling at the Department of Justice

We haven’t written much about the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, which reportedly is about to lead to the resignation of the Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The best way to get a handle on the controversy is by reading the Joint Staff Report that was prepared for Congressman Issa’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Senator Grassley of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and was released last Tuesday. The report is based on testimony taken from ATF agents and, to a lesser extent, on documents produced to Issa’s committee by ATF.
The report relates that in the fall of 2009, the Department of Justice “developed a risky new strategy to combat gun trafficking along the Southwest Border,” which was implemented by ATF, a part of the Justice Department. The new strategy was called “Operation Fast and Furious.”

The operation’s goal was to establish a nexus between straw purchasers of assault-style weapons in the United States and Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) operating on both sides of the United States-Mexico border.

“Straw purchasers” are people who buy guns from gun shops for the purpose of reselling them to criminal organizations. At the time when Fast and Furious began, a number of straw purchasers were known or suspected in the Southwest. The usual course, prior to that operation, had been to surveil the suspected straw purchasers as they bought weapons and to keep them under surveillance until they tried to sell or otherwise dispose of the weapons. At that point, an arrest would be made and the weapons recovered. Or, in the alternative, they could arrest the straw purchaser for “lying and buying,” making false representations in connection with his gun purchases, and try to “flip” the straw purchaser to lead them to other drug gang members. According to the agents who testified before Issa’s committee, “ATF’s long-standing policy has been not to knowingly allow guns to ‘walk’ into the hands of criminals.” It was this policy that was changed by the Fast and Furious program.
Under DOJ’s new strategy, gun shop owners would be given the names of suspected straw purchasers and would report to ATF the serial numbers of guns that they sold to those purchasers. However, the purchasers themselves were not kept under surveillance and no effort was made to stop them from transferring the guns to Mexican drug gangs. On the contrary, such transfers were the hoped-for result, on the theory that identifying the guns when they later turned up at crime scenes in Mexico or on the U.S. side of the border would “create a ‘nexus’ between the drug cartels and the straw purchasers.” Under this theory, approximately 2,000 AK-47s and other weapons were allowed to pass from known straw purchasers into the hands of the drug cartels.
It is difficult to understand how DOJ thought this could be a good idea. Almost the only way in which the illegal firearms were recovered in Mexico was when they were left at crime scenes. ATF would check serial numbers, and sometimes was able to verify that a weapon that had been bought by a known straw purchaser had, indeed, wound up in the hands of a Mexican drug gang. But so what? The authorities already knew that was taking place, and identifying the serial number after the fact would do little or nothing to help identify or catch higher-ups in the drug cartel. Intuitively, the traditional approach described above seems like a much more effective way to roll up a drug gang, which was the stated purpose of Fast and Furious.
Many ATF agents were appalled by, and rebelled against, Fast and Furious. They predicted that guns the agency had purposely allowed to get into the hands of a drug cartel would inevitably be used to commit crimes of violence, potentially against law enforcement officers. But their complaints were suppressed by higher-ups in ATF and DOJ.
The weapons that were permitted to be smuggled into Mexico under Fast and Furious contributed to the drug violence there. According to ATF agents who testified, that made ATF officials “giddy.” One agent recounted a conversation with an ATF higher-up in which he asked, “are you prepared to go to a border agent’s funeral over this or a Cochise County deputy’s over this, because that’s going to happen.” Her response, in a chilling echo of Lenin, was that “if you are going to make an omelette, you need to scramble some eggs.”
The inevitable occurred on December 14, 2010, when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered by a group of illegal aliens near Rio Rico, Arizona. Two AK-47-type weapons found at the scene had serial numbers that showed they were bought by a straw purchaser named Jaime Avila, whose identity as such had been known to ATF since November 2009.
The evidence suggests that the Department of Justice immediately went into cover-up mode. In January 2011, William Newell, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Phoenix Field Division, held a press conference in which he announced the indictment of 20 individuals. This was presented as though it represented the roll-up of a drug gang, but in fact, most of the indictments were for the relatively minor offense of “lying and buying,” and nearly all of those indicted were straw purchasers whose identities were known to ATF long before Fast and Furious began.
Since then, DOJ has attempted to deflect inquiry by quibbling over whether Fast and Furious involved “gun walking” or not–it did, under any but the narrowest definition, but the terminology is immaterial–and by stonewalling the House committee’s requests for documents relating to the program.
The joint staff report whose findings are summarized in this post does not accuse the Department of Justice of bad faith. It assumes that Fast and Furious was a misguided attempt at a new anti-cartel strategy, which had the unintended but foreseeable effect of contributing to the spiraling violence along the Mexican border.
Others are not so sure. At Pajamas Media, Bob Owens speculates that the Obama administration used Fast and Furious to advance a gun control agenda:

The most damning revelations coming out of the hearings on Operation Fast and Furious held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are the unmistakable indications that the program was never designed to succeed as a law enforcement operation at all. …
ATF agents testifying in front of the House Oversight Committee could not explain how the operation was supposed to succeed when their surveillance efforts stopped at the border and interdiction was never an option.
ATF Agent John Dodson, testifying in front of the committee, said that in his entire law enforcement career, he had “never been involved in or even heard of an operation in which law enforcement officers let guns walk.” He continued: “I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest.”
The obvious answer is that Gunwalker’s objective was never intended to be a “legitimate law enforcement interest.” Instead, it appears that ATF Acting Director Ken Melson and Department of Justice senior executives specifically created an operation that was designed from the outset to arm Mexican narco-terrorists and increase violence substantially along both sides of the Southwest border. …
At the same time in 2009 that federal law enforcement agencies (the ATF, the DOJ, and presumably Janet Napolitano’s Department of Homeland Security) were creating the operation that led to the executive branch being the largest gun smuggler in the Southwest [Ed.: This characterization is overblown; the Obama administration did not smuggle guns, but did intentionally permit and encourage the smuggling of weapons that easily could have been confiscated.], the president’s team was crafting the rhetoric to sell the crisis they were creating.
On television, in various news outlets, and even in a joint appearance with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama pushed the 90 percent lie, implying that 90% of the guns recovered in Mexican cartel violence came from U.S. gun shops.
At the same time they were damning gun dealers in public, the administration was secretly forcing them to provide weapons to the cartels, by the armful and without oversight. More than one gun industry insider suggests that the administration extorted cooperation and silence from these gun shops.

This is an explosive accusation, for which there is no evidence beyond the circumstantial. But Eric Holder’s Department of Justice needs to stop stonewalling Issa’s committee and start providing clear–among other things, unredacted–answers as to who devised Fast and Furious, and why. In the absence of such cooperation, speculation will inevitably run rampant.

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