House Republicans on Tuesday expanded their probe of a botched Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) operation that allowed thousands of guns to pour over the Mexican border after surprising and often stonewalled testimony that suggested additional involvement by more federal agencies.
A top ATF agent repeatedly evaded intense questions on Operation Fast and Furious, otherwise known as Operation Gunwalker, and initially blamed a field agent for launching the failed investigation before finally admitting that the IRS, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement “participated in the investigation” and were “aware of the strategy.”
“President Obama has been keen to talk about who didn’t know about the program and who didn’t authorize it,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
“These answers will not suffice. The American people have a right to know—once and for all—who did authorize it and who knew about it,” Issa said.
The admission that more federal agencies were in on the planning angered Rep. Dan Burton (R.-Ind.), who demanded that names be provided to panel investigators.
“I’ll do my best,” replied William Newell, the former special agent in charge of the Phoenix office of the ATF.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Burton shouted, as the hearing entered its fourth hour. “Don’t do your best, get us the names, dates, time and places involved in this investigation so that we can trace it all the way back to its origins … and see whether someone higher up or in the Justice Department are in the food chain.”
Newell finally acknowledged he was also included in the operation’s planning, but accepted limited blame for his role in the gun sting gone wrong.
Obama says that he did not know about the operation, however Newell said he did discuss ongoing gun-trafficking investigations with a White House national security director.
Although the ATF allowed the gun purchases, Newell denied firearms were intentionally allowed to “walk” across the Mexican border and ultimately be used by drug cartels and in the murder of a Border Patrol officer.
“At no time in our strategy was it to allow guns to be taken to Mexico,” Newell said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) challenged Newell’s contention and read a January 2010 briefing from Newell’s office that said, “Currently our strategy is to allow the transfer of firearms to continue to take place” for the purpose of furthering “the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators who would continue to operate and illegally traffic firearms to Mexican [drug traffickers].”
“You facilitated it, you allowed it,” Chaffetz said.
The ill-advised scheme began in 2009 as an effort to crack down on gun smugglers running arms across the border, but resulted in the transfer of thousands of weapons to Mexican drug cartel thugs and used to kill agent Brian Terry.
“It seems like you knowingly allowed weapons to get out of your control,” Issa said. “Now you are telling us you don’t let guns walk. I’ve got to tell you … someone knowingly let guns walk.”
Members on both sides of the aisle lost patience with Newell, whom Issa called a “paid non-answerer” for the Obama administration, after Newell stalled, evaded and deflected questions throughout the five-hour hearing.
“What’s your definition of walking guns? Maybe that’s part of the problem,” asked an exasperated Rep. Elijah Cummings (D.-Md.), ranking committee member.
Walking, Newell said, would be putting the guns in the hands of suspects without following up to determine where the guns were going.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R.-Ariz.) said Newell’s responses were spinning like a “merry-go-round.” “We can’t get any answers,” Gosar said.
Republicans said that as many as 2,000 guns were smuggled across the border and only about 600 have since been recovered. Tracking devices were placed on only three of the weapons, but the batteries quickly died, agents confirmed.
As for his role in the operation, Newell only acknowledged that he “should have conducted more risk assessments as to whether it was a prudent strategy.”
Newell also blamed the failure of the operation on a lack of resources, and estimated the cost of the operation at about $200,000.
Other former agents testified they have yet to receive a satisfactory explanation as to why such an operation was approved, or how it got so out of control.
Carlos Canino, the ATF’s acting attaché to Mexico, called the operation “insane.”
“I can say with authority that walking guns is not a recognized investigative technique,” Canino said.
“These guns went to ruthless criminals. U.S., law enforcement and our Mexican partners will be recovering these guns for a long time to come as they continue to turn up at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States,” Canino said.
“It infuriates me that people, including my law enforcement, diplomatic and military colleagues, may be killed or injured with these weapons,” Canino said.
Jose Wall, ATF senior special agent in Tijuana, said the weapons smuggled as a result of the operation quickly resulted in an “arms race between the various cartels.”
“I could not believe that someone in ATF would so callously let firearms wind up in the hands of criminals. But it appears that I was wrong, that hundreds and quite possibly thousands of guns have been allowed to reach the hands of organized crime,” Wall said.
“And that this activity has seemingly been approved by our own Justice Department and ATF management in the misguided hope of catching the big fish,” Wall said.
Added William McMahon, ATF deputy assistant director for field operations: “However good our intentions, regardless of our resource challenges, and notwithstanding the difficult legal hurdles we face in fighting firearms traffickers—we made mistakes.”
While panel Republicans said they plan to use their findings to push for reforms in future investigations, Democrats expressed their desire to seek more gun-control laws.
Reaction from ATF agents was mixed. Some said stiffer criminal penalties were needed for those who make straw purchases, such as the gunrunners in the Fast and Furious Operation, others were more cautious.
“We do have Second Amendment rights,” said Lorren Leadmon, an ATF intelligence operations specialist.