Wednesday, June 22, 2011

ATF’s “Operation Fast & Furious” Backfires

U.S.-Mexico border violence continues to plague the Unites States. This time, it is a failed program by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) called “Operation Fast and Furious” (OFF) that has everyone ‘up in arms.’ The reckless ATF program backfired, allowing thousands of weapons to get into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

The OFF program let some of the straw purchasers (those who buy guns for someone who can’t do so legally) walk off with semiautomatic weapons, enabling the U.S. government to move away from targeting small buyers and instead bring down entire arms trafficking networks when the guns were traced. Unfortunately, the weapons too often turned up again only after they had been used in subsequent crimes, including murders.

Back on 14 December 2010, Brain Terry [40], a former Marine who at the time was a member of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s special response team, was waiting with three other agents in a remote canyon north of Nogales, Ariz., when a frenzied shoot out ensued between them and a band of illegal immigrants that were trying to cross the border. One of the suspects was injured during the shoot out and taken into custody, while three others were later apprehended. Agent Terry, however, was not so lucky; he was shot and killed during the deadly gunfight.

When two guns linked to Operation Fast and Furious were found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Terry’s December slaying in Arizona, OFF finally made headlines, and the ATF came under “heavy fire” from critics of the program. Mexican officials say at least 150 Mexicans have been shot by guns obtained through the "Fast and Furious" program, and the Mexican government was obviously not privy to the existence of this operation until now.

The scrutiny only grew when statistics were released showing how disastrous the program actually had become. Over 2,000 guns—including AK-47s and .50-caliber rifles, and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition—were allowed to “walk” into the possession of Mexican narco-terrorist groups. The ATF admits that nearly 800 of these guns were used in crimes on both sides of the border, endangering American and Mexican lives alike.

OFF was a new addition to the ATF’s now-defunct “Project Gunrunner” program, which authorized several U.S. gun stores located near the Mexican border to sell thousands of semi-automatic firearms to suspected and known straw-purchasers. To make matters worse, Terry and his federal U.S. Border Patrol colleagues were using beanbag rounds in the shootout, fighting against illegals who were using semiautomatic weapons that the ATF had “walked” across the border.

Now the only question is how far up the chain of command the decision-making went. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have both asserted that they did not authorize the program. So who did? Up to this point senior ATF officials have taken the brunt of the culpability, but lawmakers are looking at the Justice Department, which heads the ATF.

At a House Oversight Committee hearing last week—which was requested by the chairman of the U.S. House of Representative’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and two other Republican congressmen—ATF agents told lawmakers that instead of arresting the small-time buyers, they were instructed to stand by and watch to see where the guns went in an effort to build a case against bigger arms dealers.

As Representative Issa called his hearing into session last week, congressional staffers handed out e-mails showing that the ATF’s acting director, Kenneth Melson (pic above), and acting deputy director, Bill Hoover, were both involved in overseeing “Operation Fast and Furious.” One e-mail from George T. Gillett, the assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Phoenix office, to David Voth, an ATF supervisor, on March 10, 2010—about nine months before the story broke — includes this sentence: “Not sure if you know, but Mr. Nelson and Mr. Hoover are being briefed weekly on this investigation.”

Special agents John Dodson, Olindo “Lee” Casa, and Peter Forcelli all told Issa’s congressional committee that their superiors ordered them to allow suspects to walk away with dangerous weapons, “often over their strenuous objections.” The agents testified that the strategy was never very likely to work, because serial numbers were the only means by which they could track the guns. GPS technology was unavailable. Forcelli called the techniques “delusional,” estimating that guns wound up in Mexico twice as often as the United States, and Casa said he had never heard of letting guns walk before he worked in the ATF's Phoenix office.

Forcelli, an ATF Supervisory Agent, told Greta Van Susteren (of FOX News), “This is a failure in leadership at all levels within ATF, and whoever was briefed at the top; this should have been roped in much sooner than it was… The attorney general of the United States oversees all of the Department of Justice, and ATF is a branch. What he knows about this case, obviously, I can't speak to that.”

“The department’s leadership allowed the ATF to implement this flawed strategy, fully aware of what was taking place on the ground,” Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) concluded in their report. “This hapless plan allowed the guns in question to disappear out of the agency's view. As a result, this chain of events inevitably placed the guns in the hands of violent criminals.”

However, complicating things even further, the Washington Post reported that Rep. Issa (pic above) was given highly specific information about OFF at an April 2010 classified briefing and did not express any opposition. Issa called the OFF program “felony-stupid bad judgment,” and has repeatedly called for top Justice Department officials to be held accountable for the OFF program. Yet, one source familiar with the session said, “All of the things [Issa] has been screaming about, he was briefed on.” Frederick R. Hill, a spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs, acknowledged on Tuesday that an ATF briefing on “weapons smuggling by criminal cartels” took place in April 2010 but declined to specify what Issa or his staff were told.

So, the bottom line is that we are left with a dead border patrol agent, a failed government program that has put thousands of weapons into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, and failed leadership at all levels—with no one stepping up and taking the blame for recklessly endangering American, as well as Mexican, lives.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Melson may be ousted this week in connection with the Operation Fast and Furious controversy.

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