The latest congressional report on Operation Fast and Furious found that the gunwalking-program-turned-scandal was the result of a “deliberate strategy created at the highest levels of the Justice Department aimed at identifying the leaders of a major gun trafficking ring.”
The report is the second installment in a three-part series from Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley and House oversight committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa.
That “deliberate strategy,” congressional investigators argue, sprang from “a series of speeches about combating violence along the Southwest border” that Attorney General Eric Holder delivered shortly after taking office.
“Although [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] ATF did not officially open the Fast and Furious investigation until the fall of 2009, the groundwork for the strategy that would guide the operation began shortly after new leadership took control of the Department of Justice nine months earlier,” the report reads. “On February 25, 2009, just one month after Attorney General Eric Holder took office, he gave a speech noting the danger of the Mexican drug cartels, focusing on the Sinaloa cartel in particular.”
On Feb. 25, 2009, Holder said the drug cartels “are lucrative, they are violent, and they are operated with stunning planning and precision” and, under his leadership, he promised “these cartels will be destroyed.”
A little more than a month later, on April 2, 2009 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, congressional investigators say Holder “gave further insight into the department’s new strategy for combating these dangerous cartels.”
“He spoke about the development of a prosecution and enforcement strategy with respect to firearms trafficking, noting that the ‘administration launched a major new effort to break the backs of the cartels,’” the report reads. “In particular, the attorney general said that the Justice Department was committed to adding ‘100 new ATF personnel to the Southwest Border’ and that Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would add ‘16 new positions on the border.’ Most importantly, the attorney general noted that there must be ‘an attack in depth, on both sides of the border, that focuses on the leadership and assets of the cartel.’”
Shortly after that April 2, 2009 speech by Holder, congressional investigators say “a Firearms Trafficking Working Group was formed.” Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the head of DOJ’s Criminal Division, led the working group. It was tasked with “exploring and recommending proposals to enhance law enforcement efforts to curb firearms trafficking, focusing specifically on investigation, interdiction, training, prosecution, and intelligence-sharing.”
Later, on June 30, 2009, congressional investigators say Deputy Attorney General David Ogden argued that the border between the U.S. and Mexico was the “front line” to fight firearms trafficking. The report lays out how Ogden “also said that ATF and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would sign a new agreement to ‘ensure coordination between the departments on firearms investigations.’”
Then, on Aug. 19, 2009, that working group presented its recommendations to Holder in a memo. “The recommendations section of this August 2009 memo included many of the previous public comments by Attorney General Holder and Deputy Attorney General Ogden,” the congressional report says of that memo.
“The document went on to recommend “intelligence-based, prosecutor-led, multi-agency task forces,’” congressional investigators write. “It suggested that under its new model, ‘we develop priority targets through the extensive use of intelligence,’ which would allow it to ‘build cases, coordinating long-term, extensive investigations to identify all the tentacles of a particular organization.’”
Congressional investigators say that Ogden then took that memo and disseminated it to the department heads for the ATF, FBI and DEA, among others. “The deputy attorney general also formed a Southwest Border Strategy Group, which he headed, responsible for implementing the new strategy,” the report reads. “The strategy group’s first meeting was on October 26, 2009, when it assembled to discuss the new strategy.”
“The meeting invitation included Deputy Attorney General Ogden and his deputies Ed Siskel and Kathryn Ruemmler (both of whom would later leave the Justice Department for the White House Counsel’s Office); Assistant Attorney General Breuer and his deputies, Jason Weinstein, Kenneth Blanco, and Bruce Swartz; ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson and Deputy Director William Hoover; the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, Dennis Burke; and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, B. Todd Jones, then serving as chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee,” the report continues, adding that the congressional committees investigating Fast and Furious “were unable to ascertain any further details regarding this meeting.”
From that memo, ATF’s Phoenix Field Division was mostly interested in “key language” on page seven. That language reads, “Thus, given the national scope of this issue, merely seizing firearms through interdiction will not stop firearms trafficking to Mexico. We must identify, investigate, and eliminate the sources of illegally trafficked firearms and the networks that transport them.”
The congressional investigators then quote ATF Phoenix Field Division Assistant Special Agent in Charge George Gillett as saying “that this specific language became the blueprint for Operation Fast and Furious.”
“The content of that plan specifically addressed wanting ATF not to focus on straw purchasers, but to focus on cartels and larger complex conspiracy type investigations,” Gillett said.
“So this strategy in October 2009 handed down by the DAG’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,” he added.