Fast and Furious: Five ATF officials named in report

Congressional Republicans have released a report on the Fast and Furious scandal, after conducting investigations for a year and a half, which concludes that five ATF officials were primarily responsible for the deadly ???gun walking??? operation.  The report was assembled by staffers from the offices of both House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and the Senate Judiciary Committee???s ranking member, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

The names cited in the report are mostly familiar to longtime students of Fast and Furious: Acting ATF Director Ken Melson, Deputy Director William Hoover, Special Agent in Charge William Newell of the Phoenix Field Division, Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations William McMahon, and Assistant Director for Field Operations Mark Chait.  Several lower-ranking agents from ATF Phoenix Group VII are also mentioned.

SAC Newell is the pivotal figure from Phoenix, a veteran of the Bush-era Operation Wide Receiver, who was oddly eager to try the same failed gun-walking tactics again??? except this time without tracking devices, or cooperation from the Mexican government.  The congressional report says Newell ???saw an opportunity to run a large scale operation intended to bring down an entire gun trafficking network ??? now with the support of the upper echelons of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.???

McMahon supervised Newell, while Chait was McMahon???s boss.  The report holds Newell and McMahon responsible for conducting the bizarre Fast and Furious operation, while their supervisors are cited for failing to monitor the operation properly, or put a stop to it when they had a chance.  Hoover, in particular, seemed well aware that he had a crisis on his hands, and went so far as to demand the formulation of an ???exit strategy,??? but he didn???t follow through.  More effort was invested in covering up Fast and Furious than controlling or halting the operation.

The slaying of Mario Gonzalez, brother of a Mexican state attorney general, with Fast and Furious guns was an early warning sign, but the ATF agents running the operation tried to keep their program???s connection to the murder quiet.  The guns kept walking until U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed.

The congressional report notes the unease of many firearms dealers co-opted by the ATF to participate in Fast and Furious.  ???These [Federal Firearms Licensees] became increasingly worried about selling firearms to obvious straw purchasers,??? says the report.  ???ATF Group Supervisor Voth assuaged their fears by arranging meetings with the U.S. Attorney???s Office and promising them that the ATF was closely monitoring and ultimately interdicting the purchased weapons.  Since the FFLs depended on ATF???s regulatory arm for their livelihood, they agreed to make these sales.???  It???s amazing what officials with regulatory power can persuade their subjects to do, isn???t it?

But alas for those gun dealers, ???in reality, ATF agents in Phoenix had no intention of interdicting these firearms, even though Group VII agents often received contemporaneous, or even advanced, notice of illegal firearms purchases.???  Sometimes this was because the ATF agents didn???t think the U.S. Attorney???s Office would be able to build a case against the straw buyers, but ???in other cases it was because ATF refused to ???compromise the bigger case??? by taking any steps that might allow the straw purchasers to be aware ATF was watching them ??? even if that meant the straw purchasers were allowed to transfer the guns to traffickers.???

This is why media descriptions of Fast and Furious as a ???botched sting operation??? are so maddening to those who have followed the scandal since its early days.  It wasn???t a botched sting.  It wasn???t a ???sting??? at all.  As the congressional report puts it, ???Group VII abandoned the traditional law enforcement techniques of disruption and deterrence by failing to confront of question the vast majority of the straw purchasers in Fast and Furious, preferring instead to watch and wait.  Agents would often follow the firearms to a parking lot or stash house where they would be transferred into another vehicle or simply deposited for later pickup.  Group VII continued merely monitoring the illegal activity even after it believed it could arrest the most prolific straw purchasers.???

Fast and Furious plowed ahead even after it became apparent that much of what the Group VII agents were seeking to discover about the larger gun trafficking network was already known to the DEA and FBI.  Information from these agencies was forwarded to the ATF, but they just kept pumping guns across the border at ???an alarming rate,??? as the congressional investigators describe it.  For example, the ATF obtained seven expensive, resource-intensive wiretaps ???while attempting to identify the same targets FBI and DEA had already identified.???

The ATF???s weird May 2010 encounter with top gun-runner Manuel Celis-Acosta, in which he was caught with a car full of ammunition but sent on his merry way, after Fast and Furious agent Hope McAllister scribbled her phone number on a $10 bill, is recounted.  The DEA wanted Celis-Acosta arrested, but they don???t have jurisdiction over gun crimes.

None of the five officials cited in the report has been officially punished or sacked by the Justice Department.  Melson was removed as Acting ATF Director and installed as a senior adviser to the Justice Department???s Office of Legal Policy, but that???s the closest anyone came to getting called on the carpet.  The others have either retired on their own, or been re-assigned without fanfare.  The report notes that SAC Newell ???still believes that he did nothing wrong in Fast and Furious, other than failing to conduct ???risk assessments??? to measure the possibility of harm to public safety.???  A great deal of harm to the public safety of both Mexicans and Americans did indeed result.  Well over a thousand Fast and Furious guns are still at large.

When whistles were blown and Congress got involved, the cover-ups came fast and furious.  Acting ATF Director Melson says he ???wanted to be very proactive in responding to the congressional inquiry into Fast and Furious,??? but the Justice Department sent an attorney to Senator Grassley???s office instead.  Melson claims he was out of the loop until after Agent Terry???s murder, but then he got up to speed and wanted to cooperate with Congress??? but the Justice Department stopped him.  He says Deputy Attorney General James Cole even prohibited him from talking to his own ATF personnel about Fast and Furious.

???From Melson???s perspective,??? the congressional report relates, ???if other Justice Department components had been more forthcoming with information they had about Fast and Furious suspects, the operation would have ended much sooner than it did.???  This would seem to conflict with the report???s earlier statements about DEA and FBI information provided to the ATF, although it looks like none of this information bubbled up to Melson???s office.

The report is remarkably blunt in stating that the Justice Department ???has made Melson the scapegoat for the reckless tactics used in the investigation.???  He lost his position as Acting ATF Director very quickly after he told congressional investigators, ???The Department is really trying to figure out a way to push information away from its political appointees at the Department.???

This congressional report is Part I of a three-part series, concerning itself strictly with the ATF.  It ends with an ominous cliffhanger: ???This report is not intended to imply in any way that the mistakes and responsibility for Operation Fast and Furious are limited to ATF and other federal officials who were based in Arizona.  While mistakes by figures in Arizona were immense, the joint Congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious will issue a second report detailing the mistakes and culpability of Department of Justice officials based in Washington, D.C.???  That???s where they???ll run into the stone walls erected by Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama.