Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Feds Blamed in Report on Gun Smuggling ~ USA TODAY
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 08: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing about the controversial the 'Operation Fast and Furious' gun running program on Capitol Hill, on November 8, 2011 in Washington, DC. 'Operation Fast and Furious' was set up to be a sting set up by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allowed weapons to be purchased from Arizona gun shops by Mexican drug cartels to trace cross boarder gun trafficking. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
A damning new congressional report on the government's controversial gun-smuggling investigation slams the Justice Department and continues a Republican-led assault on the Obama administration for allowing criminals to smuggle hundreds of firearms into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
A draft report of "Fast and Furious: The Anatomy of a Failed Operation," released Monday by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, harshly concludes that "from the outset, the case was marred by missteps, poor judgments and an inherently reckless strategy."
The report lays out a detailed chronology of the investigation but offers no striking new revelations.
The 211-page report, based on more than 70 interviews and about 10,000 pages of documents, is the first of three planned by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. It comes out just one month after the GOP-controlled House held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding Justice Department records related to the case.
Although some lawmakers have sought to portray Fast and Furious, operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as a conspiracy devised by the Obama administration to build support for gun-control legislation, the congressional report places blame instead on mistaken priorities, leadership failures and flawed communications.
The report is especially critical of William "Bill" Newell, then ATF's special agent in charge for Arizona. It paints him as an instigator of the flawed gun-walking strategy -- a boss who did not understand firearms law, lacked field experience and assisted in an attempted cover-up.
"Bill Newell had the ability and the duty to end Operation Fast and Furious much sooner than it did," says the report. "Instead, it ended as a reaction to a foreseeable tragedy. Newell authorized, endorsed, and even encouraged this investigation."
As public criticism enveloped the case, the report says Newell advised a law-enforcement colleague, "I'm not taking the fall alone. If I go down, I'm taking Dennis Burke with me."
Burke, then U.S. Attorney for Arizona, resigned amid the congressional investigation and Newell was transferred out of Arizona. Neither man could be reached for comment after an embargo on the report was lifted late Monday.
Fast and Furious was a clandestine ATF operation that lasted from late 2009 until early 2011. During that time, authorities monitored low-level criminals who bought about 2,000 guns but failed to stop trafficking of them into Mexico because they were attempting to identify and arrest cartel bosses.
The case was shut down in January 2011 -- one month after assault rifles linked to the probe were found at the scene near Nogales, Ariz., where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout.
The report describes Fast and Furious as one of the worst scandals in bureau history: "Many people up and down the chain of command in ATF share the blame for the case's tragic failures," it says, adding that no one in the agency has been held accountable.
Among the findings:
-- Justice Department officials, from field agents to prosecutors and administrators, were predisposed to the "gun-walking" strategy in Fast and Furious because of criticism that the government too often arrested gun-trafficking "minnows" while letting the big fish get away.
-- Senior Justice Department officials failed to control the smuggling case, even after they expressed alarm at the number of weapons crossing the border unlawfully. The report says Kenneth Melson, who was acting director of ATF at the time, was derelict in his leadership, and William McMahon, ATF director of field operations, "gave false testimony to Congress" about the case.
-- Communication failures beleaguered the investigation. Gun trafficking continued for months after key officials became concerned about the gun-walking strategy and called for the operation to be shut down. "The drafting of the exit strategy was delayed," the report notes, "and the (exit) strategy itself was ultimately ignored."
The report, which says ATF agents and prosecutors in Arizona set out to make a "big case" against narcotics cartels, contains no assertion that they were promoting a political agenda to justify gun control.
Some criticism appears to reflect differences of opinion on law, rather than factual findings. For example, the authors contend that federal prosecutors in Arizona misinterpreted criminal statutes governing straw purchases, and therefore instructed agents not to arrest suspects who could have been convicted.
"ATF used flawed legal advice from the U.S. Attorney's Office as an excuse to allow the transfer of weapons to take place," the report says, adding that Arizona prosecutors were "irresponsible and negligent in delaying the indictment(s)."
The House and Senate committees plan to issue two more reports. One will focus on failures in leadership at Department of Justice headquarters; another will address "the unprecedented obstruction of the investigation" by Holder and his staff.
Dennis Wagner writes for The Arizona Republic.