Federal firearms agents feared it would backfire. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has called it “felony stupid.” The response to Operation Fast and Furious has lived up to the program’s name, with the Obama administration under scrutiny for what now seems like a tragically harebrained scheme.
An initiative of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Fast and Furious was a gun-running sting operation that has gone badly awry, letting hundreds of weapons flow into the hands of Mexican drug cartels and leaving at least one federal agent dead.
When someone walks into an American gun shop to purchase weapons and then pass them along to Mexican drug gangs, it had always been standard operating procedure for the federal government to build cases against these suspected straw buyers quickly and interdict the weapons.
The brainstorm behind Operation Fast and Furious was that letting some of these straw buyers walk off with the semiautomatic weapons would enable the 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.
Two guns linked to Operation Fast and Furious were found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s December slaying in Arizona. Terry’s mother was asked what she would say to those responsible if a gun being tracked under the program was the one that killed her son. “I do not know what I would say to them,” she said, “but I would want to know what they’d say to me.”
All told, 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 drug lords. 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.
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.
The consensus is that Operation Fast and Furious was “reckless” and a “disaster.” Now the only question is how far up the chain of command the decision-making went. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have both said that they did not authorize the program. So who did? So far senior ATF officials have taken the brunt of the blame, but lawmakers are looking at the Justice Department.
“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.”
Congressional investigators uncovered Justice Department memos urging a different approach to handling border violence. “Given the national scope of this issue, merely seizing firearms through interdiction will not stop firearms trafficking to Mexico,” reads an October 2009 memo from then Deputy Attorney General David Ogden’s office. “We must identify, investigate, and eliminate the sources of illegally trafficked firearms and the networks that transport them.”
Issa’s committee has leaked emails showing the acting director of the ATF, Kenneth Melson, and his acting deputy, William Hoover, received weekly updates on the operation’s progress. The Wall Street Journal reported that Melson may be ousted this week in connection with the Operation Fast and Furious controversy.
Attempts to discover more information have led to a standoff between the Oversight Committee and the Obama Justice Department. Last week, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich protested that some of the requested documents would endanger ongoing prosecutions. Issa held up an entirely redacted document and shouted at Weich. “How dare you make an opening statement of cooperation!” the chairman thundered. “You’ve given us black paper.”
Special agent Forcelli said simply, “Someone needs to step up and say, ‘We made a mistake.'” Things are getting furiouser and furiouser.