Wednesday, June 15, 2011

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?

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