Four Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents in transcribed interviews with top GOP oversight official Darrell Issa’s office are contradicting the Justice Department’s account of “Operation Fast and Furious,” saying hundreds of weapons -– including assault rifles and military-grade sniper weapons -– were allowed to escape into the clutches of Mexican drug cartels in an apparently reckless investigative strategy.
Their testimony raises the question of whether Ronald Weich, a deputy to Attorney General Eric Holder, lied to congressional investigators in a Feb. 4 letter denying the allegations. Weich is testifying before Issa’s committee Wednesday.
The four ATF agents describe how the weapons were tracked from sales at U.S. gun shops but not seized as is normal practice. The goal of the operation was to track the weapons as they progressed from the purchasers through criminal networks.
But two rifles involved in “Fast and Furious” were found at the scene of Border Agent Brian Terry’s murder Dec. 14, 2010, apparently provoking the Justice Department to halt the operation in the aftermath of the murder. Jaime Avila, the purchaser of the guns, had been under surveillance for over a year as he illegally purchased weapons.
The ATF agents’ testimony, from John Dodson, Olindo James Casa, Lawrence Alt and Peter Forceilli, adds additional context and detail to “Fast and Furious” not previously known. The testimony is excerpted in a report from Issa released on the eve of the hearing where Weich is testifying.
Top-ranking Justice Department officials have previously denied the allegations, saying ATF agents made “every effort” to seize weapons purchased illegally. Since earlier blanket denials, however, Justice officials have since narrowed the scope of what they are denying, defining terms in ways the ATF agents say are at odds with common usage.
The four agents’ account
Dodson, Casa, Alt and Forcelli say they were instructed to watch weapons purchased illegally en route to criminal networks but not seize the weapons as they had been trained.
Forceilli recounted an instance when Casa requested help after facing aggressive and violent behavior from a man that had just illegally purchased guns.
Having “heard an agent that sounded like he was in distress” on the radio, Forceilli said, “what happened was he [Casa] was attempting to do a car stop. And we heard a female agent … telling him to stand down and not do the car stop. I later found out there were guns in the car and that the agent felt distressed because they had made him on the surveillance.”
“Later on I spoke with him. And he said that a car had almost come at him. That’s how aggressive they had become during the surveillance,” Forceilli said.
Dodson estimates 1,730 weapons escaped to the clutches of Mexican drug cartels throughout the lifespan of “Fast and Furious.” Many were later recovered at the scenes of violent crimes.
“This guy comes in, buys 10, 15, 20 AKs or … a 22-year-old girl walks in and dumps $10,000 on … AK-47s in a day, when she is driving a beat-up car that doesn’t have enough metal to hold hubcaps on it. They knew what was going on. The ‘may have facilitated’ to me is kind of erroneous. We did facilitate it. How are we not responsible for the ultimate outcome of these [g]uns?” Dodson said.