Monday, October 10, 2011

Fast and Furious primer

The first major scandal of the Obama Administration was not the recent revelation that Obama’s Department of Energy had expedited federal loans to solar panel maker Solyndra for political reasons. The first scandal came much earlier but received scant attention in the media in spite of spawning a congressional investigation. Arguably, the first scandal is more important than Solyndra because it involves the deaths of more than 200 Mexican nationals and a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Operation Fast and Furious was a sting set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) as part of Project Gunrunner, a long-running program focused on preventing American firearms from being smuggled into Mexico for use by drug cartels.

The stated intention of Fast and Furious was to track straw purchasers, people who illegally buy guns with the intent to sell them to criminals on the black market, of guns from American stores and then trace the path of the guns as they were smuggled to Mexico. The operation apparently began in late 2009 in ATF’s Phoenix, Az. division according to “The Department of Justice’s Operation Fast and Furious: Fueling Cartel Violence,” a congressional report on the subject.

According to the report, in late 2009 an abnormally large number of weapons from the Phoenix division’s area were noticed by ATF officials in Mexico. The ATF agents there contacted the Phoenix office with their concerns, but the flow of guns continued unabated.

Unknown to the ATF attaché in Mexico City, what was happening in Phoenix was apparently that ATF agents were intentionally letting illegal gun purchasers complete their transactions and smuggle the guns to Mexico. Whistleblowers later told Congress that when local firearms dealers tipped the ATF off to suspicious purchases, the ATF agents often instructed the dealers to complete the transaction. John Dodson, an ATF Special Agent, specifically told Congress that “We were mandated: Let these guns go.”

Hundreds of weapons traced to the Fast and Furious purchases were recovered in separate crime scenes in Mexico. These weapons included military style guns such as AK-47s, AR-15s, and Barrett .50 caliber rifles. In addition, 40 Fast and Furious guns were recovered in El Paso, Tx. in January 2010.

The guns were traced to Phoenix using an ATF computer system called eTrace and the ATF’s Suspect Gun Database, a collection of information on weapons that the ATF believes might be used in a crime. The congressional report notes that Phoenix agents deliberately slowed traces of Fast and Furious guns to prevent ATF agents in Mexico from learning the origin of the weapons.

As the number of gun seizures in Mexico increased, ATF agents there were raising the alarm. After getting reassurances but no action from Phoenix, the ATF attaché in Mexico City first contacted Dan Kumor, the ATF’s chief of international affairs. According to the whistle-blowing agents, they eventually contacted many members of the ATF’s senior management including Bill McMahon, the deputy assistant director for field operations, Mark Chait, the assistant director of field operations, Bill Newell, the special agent in charge of the Phoenix division, and even the Acting Director of the ATF, Kenneth Melson. Even Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer discussed the case in meetings with ATF’s agents in Mexico.

In their conversations with ATF management, the Mexican ATF agents were led to believe that Fast and Furious was being shut down in the summer of 2010. In reality it continued.

On December 15, 2010, Border Patrol agents encountered a group of men who were preying on illegal aliens near Rio Rico, Az. A firefight ensued and Agent Brian Terry was shot and killed. As many as three guns, including two AK-47s, from the incident were traced to Fast and Furious. The following month the program was shut down.

In May 2011, several months after Terry’s death, cartel members used a .50 caliber rifle to attack a Mexican federal police helicopter, forcing it

to make an emergency landing. The rifle fire punctured the “bullet proof” glass in the helicopter’s cockpit and wounded two officers. After the police raided the cartel stronghold several days later, several of the weapons found were traced back to Fast and Furious. Heavy duty body armor was also found for the first time.

Fast and Furious is embarrassing to the Obama Administration for several reasons. First, during the same time period that Fast and Furious was active, Attorney General Eric Holder and other members of the administration were using the issue of U.S. weapons linked to Mexican violence as a means to push for more gun control in the U.S., including a new “assault weapons” ban. Members of the administration propagated the myth that 90 percent of guns seized in Mexico came from the United States at the same time that the ATF was letting thousands of illegal guns “walk” across the border to Mexico.

Fast and Furious has caused an international crisis with Mexico. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has said that the United States bears some of the responsibility for cartel violence. Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said that if the ATF intentionally allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico that those involved should be prosecuted.

Fast and Furious is damaging to Obama because the trail leads directly to the White House. In particular, Attorney General Eric Holder may have perjured himself when he denied knowing about Fast and Furious until recently. Recently released documents show that Holder got at least five briefings on Fast and Furious since July 2010. If Holder was aware of Fast and Furious then other members of Obama’s inner circle, and possibly the president himself, were likely involved as well.

It has been suggested that the ATF and the administration purposely allowed the guns to walk in order to use Mexican violence as a means to push for gun control at home. Investor’s Business Daily notes that not tracking the guns past the border “seems odd if the purpose was to catch gun traffickers and their drug-lord bosses. It makes sense, however, if the real purpose was to perpetuate… the administration's gun-control agenda….”

In aftermath of the scandal, the Department of Justice shook up the management of the ATF. Acting Director Kenneth Melson was forced to resign. Mark Chait was reassigned to lead the Baltimore office. Bill McMahon and Bill Newell were rewarded with promotions to ATF headquarters in Washington.

In addition to attempting to silence whistleblowers, the government has also tried to intimidate journalists covering the story. Sharyl Atkisson, a CBS reporter, told talk-show host Laura Ingraham that White House and Justice Department officials yelled and screamed at her because she was not being “reasonable” in her pursuit of the Fast and Furious story.

Recently the administration has attempted to justify Fast and Furious by claiming that a similar program was active during the Bush Administration. So far there is no indication that the Bush-era program, Operation Wide Receiver, was connected to the White House the way Fast and Furious is. However, if the ATF did let guns walk across the border during the Bush Administration, whether with or without White House approval, it still does not excuse the Obama Administration for following a similar policy.

Most importantly, Fast and Furious matters because allowing illegal guns to be smuggled across the border for whatever reason was a violation of the public trust. The thousands of guns that the ATF allowed to walk resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Mexican citizens and at least one American. The majority of the guns are still unaccounted for so law enforcement officers in both countries will be dealing with the legacy of Fast and Furious for years to come.


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