Operation Fast and Furious: The ATF Gunrunning Scandal
Rory Cooper /
The U.S. government intentionally sells assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Those cartels use those weapons to kill, among others, a U.S. law enforcement officer. The White House deflects questions on the subject. The director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), who watched the gun sales on video in his office, stonewalls Congress. So does the Justice Department. The whistleblower that exposed it all is fired.
Paperback novel or real-life Obama Administration scandal? Time’s up.
Just last week, Vince Cefalu, a special agent in the ATF for 24 years, was dismissed from his job after helping expose an operation code named “Operation Fast and Furious,” which was designed to purposefully put assault weapons into the hands of Mexican drug cartels so they could then be tracked to collect intelligence.
The operation itself is an exhausting series of unbelievable mistakes and lapses of judgment, but the Administration’s response is even more disturbing, as is the subdued media reaction.
According to the written testimony of Supervisory Special Agent Peter Forcelli: “ATF agents assigned to the Phoenix Field Division, with the concurrence of their local chain of command, ‘walked’ guns. ATF agents allowed weapons to be provided to individuals whom they knew would traffic them to members of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.”
The goal was to uncover larger criminal conspiracies across the border. Without informing Mexican authorities, the ATF facilitated over 2,500 assault weapons entering Mexico illegally. The only modern “tracking” method was a rigged-up GPS from Radio Shack that Forcelli took it upon himself to install, since the only other tracking method would be serial numbers on the guns. That device failed.
ATF agent John Dodson, who feared that this operation would cost lives, was told to stand down and “fall in line” by supervisors. Dodson testified to Congress: “Although my instincts made me want to intervene and interdict these weapons, my supervisors directed me and my colleagues not to make any stop or arrest.”
ATF agent Olindo James Casa agreed. Casa testified:
On several occasions I personally requested to interdict or seize firearms, but I was always ordered to stand down and not to seize the firearms.
Later, guns sold in this operation were discovered at the scene of a shootout in Arizona in December 2010 in which Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed. As Forcelli testified: “To allow a gun to walk is idiotic.… This was a catastrophic disaster.”
Since then, we have learned that this operation had support in Washington and that its tactics were not a secret. Forcelli testified that Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley helped orchestrate the operation and that U.S. Attorney Dennis Burk “agreed with the direction of the case.” E-mails show that Deputy Assistant Director for ATF Field Operations William McMahon was “so excited about Fast and Furious that he received a special briefing on the program in Phoenix.”
Acting ATF director Kenneth Melson actually watched—yes, watched—live video surveillance of the operations from his office in Washington. He and his deputy were briefed weekly on the operation.
President Obama said in a press conference today: “My Attorney General has made clear that he wouldn’t have ordered gun running into Mexico.… That would not be an appropriate step by the ATF.” He then deflected further questions by citing an “ongoing investigation.” Press Secretary Jay Carney had previously said that the President “did not know about or authorize this operation.”
If that’s the case, how could neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder not know about an operation that everyone else at the Department of Justice seemed to be actively involved in, including the Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Attorney and head of the ATF? Melson has finally agreed to testify in the Senate in July, and hopefully that will answer some of those questions.
And it’s about time that Melson was finally authorized by Holder to testify. The Administration’s stonewalling on this subject has been embarrassing. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote to Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) in February that “the allegation described in your January 27 letter—that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico—is false.” We now know that this is not true.
Weich went on:
I also want to assure you that ATF has made no attempt to retaliate against any of its agents regarding this matter. We recognize the important of protecting employees from retaliation to their disclosures of waste, fraud, and abuse. ATF employees receive annual training on their rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Of course, last week, Cefalu was dismissed, allegedly as retaliation for his disclosure of waste, fraud, and abuse.
Grassley then responded with a letter to Holder with the specifics of the operation that he had previously delivered. The Department of Justice continued to ignore Congress’s requests for information. Only recently, when Congressman Darrell Issa (R–CA) held a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, did details begin to emerge and the media begin to take notice.
However, even as stories have been written, and some broadcast outlets, including Fox and ABC, have run some stories on it, the attention this story merits is not matched by the attention it is getting. ABC’s Jake Tapper asked the White House: “What is the exact date that the President learned about the Justice Department ATF operation?” Carney deflected the question.
An anonymous Justice Department source had been circulating a false story last week that Issa had been briefed on the operation in April 2010. The Washington Post published the claim despite clear evidence to the contrary and only anonymous sources. More credible and transparent reporting on the operation is vital.
As of today, the only person punished for Operation Fast and Furious has been someone who helped expose the details. Accountability for this massive operational failure is essential, and it will come only with more media attention.