A new congressional report explores how gunwalking, as it occurred in Operation Fast and Furious, appears to have had its “genesis” in the offices of Attorney General Eric Holder’s top deputies.
The report also lays blame for Fast and Furious at the feet of five senior Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials.
Gunwalking describes a law enforcement operation in which law enforcement agents choose not to interdict or seize firearms they know were illegally bought by straw purchasers — in the case of Fast and Furious, representatives of Mexican drug cartels — with the goal of allowing them to penetrate further into a criminal conspiracy chain.
Once Fast and Furious-related weapons were “walked” across the U.S.-Mexico border, they could only be recovered at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States, or during raids other law enforcement officials conducted. Mexican drug cartel operatives commonly leave murder weapons at crime scenes so they aren’t found with them at a later time.
Walking guns is tactically fraught with danger because those weapons are often used in crimes. In Fast and Furious, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in this way; so was Mario Gonzalez, the brother of now-former Mexican government prosecutor Patricia Gonzalez.
It also appears Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata was killed with a Fast and Furious-related weapon. Mexican government officials have estimated that hundreds of people in their country were killed with the guns the Obama administration walked to Mexico.
Holder has denied he or anyone in the Department of Justice’s leadership knew of or approved gunwalking related to Fast and Furious.
But this new congressional report, released Tuesday by House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley — both Republicans — concludes senior Obama administration officials appear to have set the stage for, and possibly encouraged, ATF officials to walk guns into Mexico.
The report finds that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who leads the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, told Holder about the Firearms Trafficking Working Group (FTWG) in an Aug. 19, 2009, memo of recommendation.
“The FTWG’s mission was to formulate a plan to improve the U.S. government’s efforts in stemming the illegal flow of weapons, which was fueling escalating violence along both sides of the Southwestern border,” the report reads. “The working group’s first recommendation was that the ‘attorney general and secretary of Homeland Security should form an interagency Southwest Border (‘SWB’) firearms trafficking strategy group.’ According to the Justice Department, ‘the deputy attorney general responded to the specific proposals in this memorandum by forming the Southwest Border Strategy Group, which he chaired.’”
Shortly thereafter, then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, the No. 2 official in the Department of Justice, drafted and disseminated a new planning document titled “Strategy for Combating the Mexican Cartels.”
In that document, Ogden laid the groundwork for the Obama administration’s senior-level political support of gunwalking.
“[M]erely seizing firearms through interdiction will not stop firearms trafficking to Mexico,” Ogden wrote in that memo, obtained by congressional investigators and released along with the report Tuesday.
“We must identify, investigate, and eliminate the sources of illegally trafficked firearms and the networks that transport them.”
Ogden’s directive was an official policy statement directing agents to stop focusing exclusively on arresting straw purchasers. Instead,the Department of Justice would zero in on more complex conspiracy cases.
The Ogden memo and its explicit support from senior administration officials opened the door for agents like Bill Newell, who led ATF’s Phoenix field division, to allow guns to walk in large numbers. Newell, one of five officials to whom Issa and Grassley have pointed as responsible for Operation Fast and Furious, had already tried similar tactics during the George W. Bush administration.
As part of Operation Wide Receiver, an initiative of the Bush administration, Newell walked approximately 300 weapons in conjunction with Mexican law enforcement. (By contrast, Fast and Furious did not involve Obama administration officials working with Mexican authorities on the other side of the border.) The Bush DOJ ultimately dropped criminal cases resulting from Operation Wide Receiver without any public explanation.
When Obama became president, Newell’s failed Wide Receiver case was re-opened under orders from Breuer, who sent resources and manpower to Arizona to try to prosecute the case’s targets — another indication of possible Obama administration support for gunwalking.
Congressional investigators allege that with newfound support from Ogden and Breuer, the atmosphere in the Obama administration had become clear: It was now acceptable to allow guns to walk, and political leaders in Washington supported the tactic.
Issa and Grassley cite a transcribed interview, conducted with ATF Assistant Agent in Charge George Gillett, to support their allegation that gunwalking under the Obama administration originated with Ogden. At ATF, Gillett supervised David Voth, another central figure in Operation Fast and Furious.
In that interview, Gillett told congressional investigators that the Ogden memo “specifically addressed wanting ATF not to focus on straw purchasers but to focus on cartels and larger complex conspiracy-type investigations.”
“So this strategy in October 2009, handed down by the [deputy attorney general]’s office, actually from the Phoenix perspective, was well-timed and provided us with direction on how to proceed in these types of firearms trafficking investigations,” Gillett said during that interview.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler did not respond to a request for comment for this story.