Thursday, June 23, 2011

Arizona sheriff blames Mexican smugglers for Border Wild Fires

By Tim Gaynor  reprinted from Reuters

PALOMINAS, Ariz | Tue Jun 21, 2011 7:08pm EDT

PALOMINAS, Ariz (Reuters) - Two Arizona wildfires that have scorched a quarter-million acres combined and destroyed dozens of homes just north of the U.S.-Mexico border were probably started by Mexican smugglers, the Cochise County sheriff said on Tuesday.

The remarks by Sheriff Larry Dever are likely to add to the furor sparked by Arizona Senator John McCain when he suggested that illegal immigrants were to blame for some of the massive wildfires raging out of control in the state.

The latest of those, the so-called Monument Fire, erupted a week ago at the Coronado National Memorial and spread quickly into the adjacent national forest. It roared through the steep slopes and rugged canyons of the Huachuca Mountains before breaking out into ranch lands and populated areas over the weekend.

A separate blaze in southeastern Arizona known as the Horseshoe 2 Fire has blackened some 223,000 acres and destroyed or damaged nine dwellings since it began May 8, though it is now listed as 90 percent contained.

Cochise Sheriff Dever told reporters the Monument Fire was "man-caused" and started in an area near the border fence that is closed to visitors and known to law enforcement for "high-intensity, drug- and human-trafficking."

"It wasn't the rabbits or the rattle snakes that started this fire, it was human beings, and the only human beings believed to be occupying (the area) were smugglers," he said during a news conference.

Dever said traffickers intentionally light fires to use as signals, to keep themselves warm and as diversions "to keep ... law enforcement off their backs." He added that the Horseshoe 2 Fire was likely sparked in the same way.

Federal officials stressed, however, that origins of the Monument and Horseshoe 2 fires remains under investigation.

Any statements at this point about a cause "would be speculation," said John Morlock, acting National Park Service administrator for the Monument Fire.

He told Reuters that while the grounds of the Coronado Memorial where the Monument Fire began were closed to the public due to extreme fire danger at the time, a road that runs through that 4,700-acre park was open to traffic.

Dever's statements appeared to give credence to statements McCain made on Saturday citing "substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally."

The Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate made that comment at a news conference after paying a visit to the site of a third, larger blaze farther north in Arizona, the Wallow Fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

Some critics have accused McCain of trying to single out illegal immigrants as scapegoats before the cause of the fires had been officially determined.

But Dever told Reuters, "I wouldn't take issue with the senator at all. In fact, I would support absolutely what he is suggesting."

The Monument fire has gutted at least 62 homes and a number of businesses, and an estimated 11,000 people were forced to flee at the peak of the fire threat in an area southeast of the town of Sierra Vista, Arizona. About 27,000 acres have burned in all.

Diminished winds since Monday have helped firefighters make headway against the flames, and by Tuesday ground crews had managed to carve containment lines around 40 percent of the fire's perimeter. But much of the Monument Fire continues to burn in remote terrain inaccessible to ground crews.

Federal fire authorities have said they suspect that an unattended campfire touched off the Wallow Fire, which has burned over 800 square miles and ranks as the largest ever in Arizona. Two "persons of interest" have been questioned by investigators, but they have not been identified, and no charges have been filed.

In response to McCain's remarks, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman was quoted by ABC News as saying there was no evidence to suggest illegal immigrants were to blame,

McCain has stood by his statement, saying he was speaking generally about "some" of the Arizona fires, not the Wallow Fire specifically.

On Monday, McCain, fellow Arizona Senator Jon Kyl and two Arizona congressmen, U.S.  Representatives Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar, issued a joint statement saying that a Forest Service official who briefed them during their Wallow Fire visit told them that "some wildfires in Arizona are regrettably caused by drug smugglers and illegal immigrants."

(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)

Who OK'd 'Guns To Gangs' Program, And Why?

Editorial: reprinted from Investors Business Daily

Law: After getting caught doing the unbelievable — arming Mexico's cartels — word is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms boss is out, and the gun-controller the White House wanted all along is in. How far up does this go?

Acting ATF director Kenneth Melson is apparently ready to take the fall for what may be the most morally repulsive scandal to befall the Obama administration so far.

Our neighbor Mexico lies bleeding from a long, vicious war to fight seven major drug cartels at once. Some 38,000 have been left dead since 2006. Amid all this, U.S. ATF agents had orders from on high to supply U.S. weapons to cartel middlemen buying them on U.S. soil for the odd purpose of "tracing" them.

The news that Melson is resigning seems to be a bid by the Obama administration to paint this as simply an example of Keystone Kop-style bungling being corrected. But many things suggest the operation may have been done for political purposes, and not merely stupidity.

The idea behind "Operation Fast and Furious" was to let gun dealers sell weapons to cartel middlemen, who would then ship them to criminal gangs in Mexico, and damn the consequences.
The operation was so contrary to the goals of ATF that its agents repeatedly raised anguished protests — only to be rebuffed from their superiors, according to testimony presented to House Oversight Committee chair Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is investigating the scandal.
Nearly 2,000 weapons flowed south to Mexico based on this U.S.-taxpayer-financed program. Not surprisingly, two of these "gunwalker" weapons turned up at the Arizona murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, killed by illegal aliens in December 2010.

The Issa hearings are having an effect, with Melson's rumored resignation the first sacrificial offering.
But does it really end there? So much doesn't add up.

First, as operations go, this one was "felony-stupid," as Issa put it in the hearings. There was no effort to trace the weapons even after letting them get out. If the weapons weren't traced, why was this operation sanctioned? The White House made a big deal about U.S. weapons flowing south to Mexico, claiming 90% of all weapons in the hands of cartels came from U.S. gun merchants.

But that argument was false, based on the cherry-picked samples Mexico offered for inspection. For Mexico, it was a chance to divert attention from their loose border controls and blame the gringos.
As for Obama, he wanted to reinstate an assault-weapon ban in 2008, but said he did not have the political capital to do it. Bob Owens, writing for Pajamas Media, noted that the administration seemed to want to whip up a crisis requiring a crackdown on guns in the U.S.

It gets worse. President Obama has long wanted gun-control-oriented ATF agent Andrew Traver to head the agency. Now, with Melson rumored to be ready to quit this week, he may get his way and benefit.

There are real questions that must be answered about who knew about this, and when. An American lies murdered for what may be political aims. He has a right to justice — as high up as it goes.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Congressional Findings on "Fast and Furious"

DOJ and ATF inappropriately and recklessly relied on a 20-year old ATF Order to allowguns to walk. DOJ and ATF knew from an early date that guns were being trafficked tothe DTOs.
ATF agents are trained to “follow the gun” and interdict weapons whenever possible.Operation Fast and Furious required agents to abandon this training.
DOJ relies on a narrow, untenable definition of gunwalking to claim that guns were never walked during Operation Fast and Furious. Agents disagree with this definition,acknowledging that hundreds or possibly thousands of guns were in fact walked. DOJ’smisplaced reliance on this definition does not change the fact that it knew that ATF couldhave interdicted thousands of guns that were being trafficked to Mexico, yet chose to do nothing.
ATF agents complained about the strategy of allowing guns to walk in Operation Fastand Furious. Leadership ignored their concerns. Instead, supervisors told the agents to“get with the program” because senior ATF officials had sanctioned the operation.
Agents knew that given the large numbers of weapons being trafficked to Mexico, tragicresults were a near certainty.
Agents expected to interdict weapons, yet were told to stand down and “just surveil.”Agents therefore did not act. They watched straw purchasers buy hundreds of weaponsillegally and transfer those weapons to unknown third parties and stash houses.
Operation Fast and Furious contributed to the increasing violence and deaths in Mexico.This result was regarded with giddy optimism by ATF supervisors hoping that gunsrecovered at crime scenes in Mexico would provide the nexus to straw purchasers inPhoenix.
Every time a law enforcement official in Arizona was assaulted or shot by a firearm, ATFagents in Group VII had great anxiety that guns used to perpetrate the crimes may trace back to Operation Fast and Furious.
Jaime Avila was entered as a suspect in the investigation by ATF on November 25, 2009,after purchasing weapons alongside Uriel Patino, who had been identified as a suspect inOctober 2009. Over the next month and a half, Avila purchased 13 more weapons, eachrecorded by the ATF in its database within days of the purchase. Then on January 16,2010, Avila purchased three AK-47 style rifles, two of which ended up being found at themurder scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. The death of Border Agent BrianTerry was likely a preventable tragedy.
Phoenix ATF Special Agent in Charge (SAC) William Newell’s statement that the indictments represent the take-down of a firearms trafficking ring from top to bottom, and his statement that ATF never allowed guns to walk are incredible, false, and a source of much frustration to the agents.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, DOJ continues to deny that Operation Fastand Furious was ill-conceived and had deadly consequences.

Congressional Report on "Fast and Furious"

reprinted from the Congressional Report on DOJ operation "Fast and Furious"

Executive Summary

In the fall of 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) developed a risky new strategy to combat gun trafficking along the Southwest Border. The new strategy directed federal law enforcement to shift its focus away from seizing firearms from criminals as soon as possible—

and to focus instead on identifying members of trafficking networks. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) implemented that strategy using a reckless investigative technique that street agents call “gunwalking.” ATF’s Phoenix Field Division began allowing suspects to walk away with illegally purchased guns. The purpose was to wait and watch, in the hope that law enforcement could identify other members of a trafficking network and build a large, complex conspiracy case.

This shift in strategy was known and authorized at the highest levels of the Justice Department. Through both the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona and “Main Justice,” headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Department closely monitored and supervised the activities of the ATF. The Phoenix Field Division established a Gun Trafficking group, called Group VII, to focus on firearms trafficking. Group VII initially began using the new gunwalking tactics in one of its investigations to further the Department’s strategy. The case was soon renamed “Operation Fast and Furious,” and expanded dramatically.

It received approval for Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) funding on January 26, 2010. ATF  led a strike force comprised of agents from ATF, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA),  Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The operation’s goal was to establish a nexus between straw purchasers of assault-style weapons in the United States and Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) operating on both sides of the United States-Mexico border. Straw purchasers are individuals who are legally entitled to purchase firearms for themselves, but who unlawfully purchase weapons with the intent to transfer them into the hands of DTOs or other criminals.

Operation Fast and Furious was a response to increasing violence fostered by the DTOs  in Mexico and their increasing need to purchase ever-growing numbers of more powerful weapons in the U.S. An integral component of Fast and Furious was to work with gun shop merchants, or “Federal Firearms Licensees” (FFLs) to track known straw purchasers through the unique serial number of each firearm sold. ATF agents entered the serial numbers of the weapons purchased into the agency’s Suspect Gun Database. These weapons bought by the straw purchasers included AK-47 ariants, Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles, .38 caliber revolvers,  and the FN Five-seveN.

During Fast and Furious, ATF frequently monitored actual transactions between the FFLs and straw purchasers. After the purchases, ATF sometimes conducted surveillance of these weapons with assistance from local police departments. Such surveillance included following the vehicles of the straw purchasers. Frequently, the straw purchasers transferred the weapons they bought to stash houses. In other instances, they transferred the weapons to third parties. The volume, frequency, and circumstances of these transactions clearly established reasonable suspicion required

to question byers. Agents are trained to use such interactions to develop probable cause to arrest the suspect or otherwise interdict the weapons and deter future illegal  purchases  operation Fast and Furious sought instead to  allow the flow of guns from straw purchasers to the third parties. Instead of trying to interdict the weapons, ATF purposely avoided contact with known straw purchasers or curtailed surveillance, allowing guns to fall into the hands of criminals and bandits on both sides of the border.

Though many line agents objected vociferously, ATF and DOJ leadership continued to prevent them from making every effort to interdict illegally purchased firearms. Instead,  leadership’s focus was on trying to identify additional conspirators, as directed by the Department’s strategy for combating Mexican Drug Cartels. ATF and DOJ leadership were interested in seeing where these guns would ultimately end up. They hoped to establish a connection between the local straw buyers in Arizona and the Mexico-based DTOs. By entering serial numbers from suspicious transactions into the Suspect Gun Database, ATF would be quickly notified as each one was later recovered at crime scenes and traced, either in the United States or in Mexico.

The Department’s leadership allowed the ATF to implement this flawed strategy, fully aware of what was taking place on the ground. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona encouraged and supported every single facet of Fast and Furious. Main Justice was involved in providing support and approving various aspects of the Operation, including wiretap applications that would necessarily include painstakingly detailed descriptions of what ATF knew about the straw buyers it was monitoring.

This hapless plan allowed the guns in question to disappear out of the agency’s view. As a result, this chain of events inevitably placed the guns in the hands of violent criminals. ATF would only see these guns again after they turned up at a crime scene. Tragically, many of these recoveries involved loss of life. While leadership at ATF and DOJ no doubt regard these deaths as tragic, the deaths were a clearly foreseeable result of the strategy. Both line agents and gun dealers who cooperated with the ATF repeatedly expressed concerns about that risk, but ATF supervisors did not heed those warnings. Instead, they told agents to follow orders because this was sanctioned from above. They told gun dealers not to worry because they would make sure the guns didn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Unfortunately, ATF never achieved the laudable goal of dismantling a drug cartel. In fact, ATF never even got close. After months and months of investigative work, Fast and Furious resulted only in indictments of 20 straw purchasers. Those indictments came only after the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. The indictments, filed January 19, 2011, focus mainly on what is known as “lying and buying.” Lying and buying involves a straw purchaser falsely filling out ATF Form 4473, which is to be completed truthfully in order to legally acquire a firearm. Even worse, ATF knew most of the indicted straw purchasers to be straw purchasers before Fast and Furios even began.

In response to criticism, ATF and DOJ leadership denied allegations that gunwalking occurred in Fast and Furious by adopting an overly narrow definition of the term. They argue that gunwalking is imited to cases in which ATF itself supplied the guns directly.

As field agents understood the term,  however, gunwalking includes situations in which ATF had
contemporaneous knowledge of illegal gun purchases and purposely decided not to attempt any
interdiction. The agents also described situations in which ATF facilitated or approved ransactions to known straw buyers. Both situations are even more disturbing in light of the ATF’s certain knowledge that weapons previously purchased by the same straw buyers had been trafficked into Mexico and may have reached the DTOs. When the full parameters of this program became clear to the agents assigned to Group VII, a rift formed among Group VII’s agents in Phoenix. Several agents blew the whistle on this reckless operation only to facepunishment and retaliation from ATF leadership. Sadly, only the tragic murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry provided the necessary impetus for DOJ and ATF leadership to finally indict the straw buyers whose regular purchases they had monitored for 14 months. Even then, it was not until after whistleblowers later reported the issue to Congress that the Justice Department finally issued a policy directive that prohibited gunwalking.

This report is the first in a series regarding Operation Fast and Furious. Possible future reports and hearings will likely focus on the actions of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona, the decisions faced by gun shop owners (FFLs) as a result of ATF’sacntions, and the remarkably ill-fated decisions made by Justice Department officials in Washington, especially within the Criminal Division and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. This first installment focuses on ATF’s misguided approach of letting guns walk. The report describes the agents’ outrage about the use of gunwalking as an investigative technique and the continued denials and stonewalling by DOJ and ATF leadership. It provides some answers as to what went wrong with Operation Fast and Furious.

Further questions for key ATF and DOJ decision makers remain unanswered. For example, what leadership failures within the Department of Justice allowed this program to thrive? Who will be held accountable and when?