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.
‘Get with the program’
The agents said they complained vociferously about the operation to superiors. Eventually, a “schism” between team members developed over whether the tactics being used were wise or even legal.
David Voth, the team’s supervisor, sent a March 12, 2010, email to the team, saying the tactics of “Fast and Furious” were backed by “HQ.”
“Whether you care or not people of rank and authority at HQ are paying close attention to this case and they also believe we … are doing what they envisioned the Southwest Border Grouops doing. It may sound cheesy but we are ‘The tip of the ATF spear’ when it comes to Southwest Border Firearms Trafficking,” Voth wrote.
If the agents didn’t like it, “Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers and you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day,” Voth wrote.
Dodson said he was told “the U.S. Attorney is on board, and it was Mr. [Emory] Hurley, and they say there is nothing illegal going on.”
Justice Department denials
Initially, top Justice Department officials denied weapons were allowed to escape into criminal networks.
“At the outset, the allegation described in your January 27 letter – that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico – is false,” a Feb. 4 letter from Weich to Issa and Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley said.
“ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico,” the letter said.
According to the testimony of the four ATF agents and a broad range of other evidence, the second sentence (“every effort”) is plainly false.
Issa’s report says since the Feb. 4 letter, Justice Department officials have clarified that their denial was only meant to encompass instances when the weapon purchasers themselves physically crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with the weapons they had purchased illegally under ATF surveillance.
“Of course, this statement misses the point entirely. ATF permitted known straw purchasers to obtain these deadly weapons and traffic them to third parties. Then, at some point after ATF broke off surveillance, the weapons were transported to Mexico. ATF was definitely aware that these guns were ending up in Mexico, being transported through Arizona and Texas Points of Entry,” Issa said.