Within months after Barack Obama became President, a covert operation was launched to allow gun sales to people with ties to the Mexican drug cartels, ostensibly in hopes that those guns would lead agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to cartel members in Mexico. The name of the operation was “Project Gunrunner,” and the details of it included allowing straw purchasers to buy not hundreds but thousands of guns, approximately 2,500, which they were then to walk into Mexico while having their movements traced by the ATF. The problem is that the ATF was not able to keep track of the weapons, and to date only 1,300 of the approximate 2,500 have been recovered.
An even bigger problem is that at least one federal officer, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, lost his life in a shootout with an individual armed with a weapon sold during Gunrunner, and violence in Mexico jumped exponentially when the weapons made their way into that country. For example, 958 people were killed in Mexico during the month of March 2010 alone, and at least 150 Mexican law enforcement officers have been killed since early 2009. (A little-known fact is that many of the guns sold during Gunrunner were assault rifles and similar weapons that are easily converted from semiautomatic to full-auto. In other words, our ATF looked the other way while men with criminal ties entered gun stores in Arizona and purchased weapons that are now de facto machine guns on the streets of Mexico and the U.S. Southern border.)
At the outset it is important to note that as this operation moved from one of overseeing the selling and subsequent international transport of weapons, to one in which law enforcement was supposed to trace the guns back to cartel members and make arrests, its name changed from Gunrunner to “Fast and Furious.” Yet they are not so much two separate operations as they are two parts of one large covert action. Thus it’s not uncommon to hear people use the labels Gunrunner and Fast and Furious interchangeably.
The beginnings of Gunrunner can at least be traced back as far as Feb. 15, 2009, when President Obama authorized $10 million for it via the stimulus package. His signature on that document renders his subsequent denials of any knowledge of Gunrunner questionable at best. And on April 2, 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the Mexico/United States Arms Trafficking Conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in which he boasted of overseeing the implementation of Gunrunner.
Holder said: “Last week, our administration launched a major new effort to break the backs of the cartels. My department is committing 100 new ATF personnel to the Southwest border in the next 100 days to supplement our ongoing Project Gunrunner, DEA is adding 16 new positions on the border, as well as mobile enforcement teams, and the FBI is creating a new intelligence group focusing on kidnapping and extortion.
At the time of Holder’s speech, the mention of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the FBI seemed to slip right past the news commentary, so that even as reporters and bloggers began focusing attention on Gunrunner and Fast and Furious in the spring of 2011, they referenced them solely in relation to the ATF. But in testimony before Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) over the Fourth of July holiday (2011), Kenneth Melson, acting ATF director, broke ranks with Obama and Holder and talked at length about how Gunrunner and Fast and Furious were interagency operations to a certain degree. In particular, Melson testified to how the involvement of so many different agencies at so many different levels mangled an already wounded plan, resulting in the fact that some of the cartel members being sought via Gunrunner and Fast and Furious turned out to be paid informants for one federal agency or another.
After hearing Melson’s testimony, Issa and Grassley fired off a letter to Holder that contained the following paragraph:
“When confronted with information about serious issues involving lack of information sharing by other agencies, which [our] Committee staff had originally learned from other witnesses, Mr. Melson’s responses tended to corroborate what others had said. Specifically, we have very real indications from several sources that some of the gun trafficking ‘higher-ups’ that the ATF sought to identify were already known to other agencies and may even have been paid as informants.”
Moreover, as Issa and Grassley connected the dots, it increasingly seemed like U.S. taxpayer funds had been used not only to help purchase the weapons, but also to pay for the cost of smuggling them across an international border:
“The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons, but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in such activities. While this is preliminary information, we must find out if there is any truth to it.”
As the investigation continued, Issa and Grassley uncovered a “cheat sheet” of sorts that was being made available for any ATF agents who might be called to testify before a congressional committee. According to Issa and Grassley, this cheat sheet was a document cache accessible through “a shared drive on [the ATF] computer system replete with pertinent investigative documents, including official ATF e-mails.” The existence of this shared drive and what appears to be an attempt to coach people to give certain answers when interviewed or cross-examined squares perfectly with Melson’s testimony that when he realized what was going on and began reassigning ATF agents associated with Gunrunner and Fast and Furious to other operations, the “Justice Department directed him and other ATF officials to not communicate to Congress the reasoning behind the reassignments.”
More Gun Control
One of the worst remaining aspects of Gunrunner and Fast and Furious is that both appear to have been carried out with the intention of increasing border crime and chaos to levels sufficient to persuade Americans to embrace more gun control. If such a presumption seems like a stretch, then consider that to date, the Justice Department’s only response to the myriad Fast and Furious allegations has been to mandate a new law requiring gun stores in Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico to make a special report to the ATF when an individual makes multiple long-gun purchases over a five-day period, the only caveat being that the guns have to be greater than .22-caliber and capable of using a detachable clip.
Upon announcing these new gun control measures on July 11, 2011, Deputy Attorney General James Cole actually tried to justify them by pointing out that such weapons “are highly sought after by dangerous drug trafficking organizations and frequently recovered at violent crime scenes near the Southwest border.” (No mention was made of the fact that hundreds upon hundreds of these same weapons were sold to would-be criminals with ATF and Justice Department approval during Gunrunner, then smuggled across the border.
Another reason it appears the passage of more gun control was the goal all along is found in e-mails between Mark Chait, ATF’s assistant director of field operations, and William Newell, special agent in charge in Phoenix during Fast and Furious. In one such e-mail, sent during July 2010, Chait asked Newell to pay special attention to multiple long-gun sales at gun stores because the ATF was, at that time, already “looking at anecdotal cases to support a demand letter on long-gun multiple sales.” (In other words, the requirement for a special form on multiple long-gun sales to law-abiding Americans was already in the works.)
Ironically, in testimony before the congressional committee on July 26, 2011, Newell insisted the alleged gun sales-to-gun walking scenario associated with Gunrunner and Fast and Furious didn’t happen, despite the existence of facts to the contrary “clearly showing they did, [and that] he knew it and approved it time and time again.” During those same testimonies, Darren Gil, former ATF attaché in Mexico, told lawmakers how dangerous things became in Mexico in 2010, and how overwhelmed he felt when he learned of the existence of Gunrunner and Fast and Furious. Gil said, “Never in my wildest dreams, ever, would I have thought of [gun walking] as an [investigative] technique. Never. Ever. It was just inconceivable to me.”
The problem, of course, is that the operations weren’t that far-fetched to the decision makers above Gil: Thus Obama provided money for them and Holder, by his own admission, handled their earliest logistics (remember his speech from April 2, 2009).
Therefore, even as Issa and Grassley continue to investigate this mess, other legislators should begin taking the proper steps to remove Holder from office. If they don’t remove him, it appears rank-and-file ATF agents will take the fall for both Gunrunner and Fast and Furious, although those same agents have testified numerous times that they only allowed guns to move across the border because their supervisors ordered them not to intervene.
If Holder isn’t removed from office, we at least owe Richard Nixon an apology.
[This article was originally published as the cover story in the August 1st issue of Human Events newspaper.]