Three federal firearms investigators told a House committee on Wednesday that they were repeatedly ordered to step aside while gun buyers in Arizona walked away with AK-47s and other high-powered weaponry headed for Mexican drug cartels in a risky U.S. law enforcement operation that went out of control.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said leaders of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were fully aware of the details of Operation Fast and Furious, which was designed to track small-time gun buyers to major weapons traffickers along the Southwest border.
At a hearing before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said “hundreds upon hundreds of weapons” destined for cartels in Mexico were purchased in Arizona gun shops.
The operation was designed to respond to criticism that the agency had focused on small-time gun arrests while major traffickers eluded prosecution.
Operation Fast and Furious came to light after two assault rifles purchased by a now-indicted small-time buyer under scrutiny in the operation turned up at the scene of a shootout in Arizona where Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed.
“We ask that if a government official made a wrong decision that they admit their error and take responsibility for his or her actions,” Robert Heyer, the slain agent’s cousin, told the committee. “We hope that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is forthcoming with all information” Congress is seeking.
Issa berated one witness, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, because the Justice Department — of which ATF is a component — has not turned over documents that Issa wants. Weich said the department is providing documents to the congressional panel on an ongoing basis. The congressman demanded to know who at the Justice Department authorized Operation Fast and Furious. Weich said that question is the subject of an inquiry by the department’s inspector general.
John Dodson, an ATF agent who complained about Fast and Furious to Grassley’s office, told the committee that “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, but rather, to keep the straw purchaser under surveillance while allowing the guns to walk.”
“Allowing loads of weapons that we knew to be destined for criminals — this was the plan,” said Dodson. “It was so mandated.”
In one case, Dodson said, he watched a suspect receive a bag filled with cash from a third party, then proceed to a gun dealer and buy weapons with that cash and deliver them to the same unidentified third party. In that and other circumstances, his instructions were to do nothing.
“Surveillance operations like this were the rule, not the exception,” said Dodson. “This was not a matter of weapons getting away from us, or allowing a few to walk so as to follow them to a much larger or more significant target.”
ATF agent Olindo James Casa said that “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.”
“We were told to just fall in line,” said Casa.
On many occasions, “the surveillance team followed straw purchasers to Phoenix area firearms dealers and would observe the straw purchasers buy and then depart with numerous firearms in hand,” said Casa. “On many of those occasions, the surveillance team would then follow the straw purchasers either to a residence, a public location or until the surveillance team was spotted by the straw purchasers. But the end result was always the same — the surveillance was terminated” by others up the chain of command.
ATF agent Peter Forcelli said that “when I voiced surprise and concern with this tactic … my concerns were dismissed” by superiors.
“To allow a gun to walk is idiotic,” said Forcelli. “This was a catastrophic disaster.”
Forcelli said that “based upon my conversations with agents who assisted in this case, surveillance on individuals who had acquired weapons was often terminated far from the Mexican border.” He said that while case agents believed that the weapons were destined for Mexico, “the potential exists that many were sent with cartel drugs to other points within the United States.”