Back Channels: How ATF delivered assault weapons to drug cartels

Attorney general should explain how misguided sting operation failed to trace guns.

Posted: July 31, 2011

Back in February 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder outlined the new administration's intent on an assault-weapons ban:

"As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons."

Not only would it be good for the United States, Holder pointed out, but it also would "have a positive impact" on Mexico, which was plagued - then and now - by drug-related gun violence.

That same month, in a travel warning, the State Department confirmed the level of violence near the U.S. border: "Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades. Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities . . . most recently in northern Mexico."

Holder's comments on a weapons ban naturally upset Second Amendment proponents, who always fear the worst when it comes to the government and gun rights. But their worst fears were no match for the misguided policy that would be implemented on Obama and Holder's watch.

A push for the ban never materialized. Holder was no more accurate on that count than he was on closing the Gitmo detention facility or trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court in Manhattan. Maybe that's all on the second-term to-do list.

What did happen was Fast and Furious, a new operation out of the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that turned the world of fighting gun trafficking upside down.

Before, ATF agents routinely busted straw purchasers - usually people with clean records who are paid to buy guns and pass them along to others with criminal records - and confiscated any weapons found. But straw purchasers are the bottom feeders in the gunrunning food chain. ATF officials, understandably, wanted to get closer to the cartel bosses running the smuggling operations.

Fast and Furious was supposed to help make that happen. The plan was to allow straw purchasers to make their deliveries, and then the ATF would trace the flow of the weapons.

But one huge detail was left unaddressed: The ATF made no provisions to actually trace the guns once they crossed the border.

The agency wasn't attaching electronic-tracking devices to the guns, and agents were not pursuing them into Mexico. They were forced to stop and watch the weapons "walk." Maybe Mexican authorities could have picked up the trail - but the ATF never told its counterparts across the border about the operation.

So, essentially, the U.S. government was now arming the very drug cartels that it was supposed to be helping Mexican officials fight.

Agents themselves were appalled. "It goes against everything we've been taught," Special Agent Carlos Canino said last week at the latest in a series of hearings on Fast and Furious by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

More than 2,000 weapons walked. Fewer than 600 have been recovered. And recovered usually means found at the scene of a crime, often a shooting or a homicide, in the United States or Mexico.

The last straw for some agents occurred in December, when two weapons traced to Fast and Furious were found at the scene of a firefight in the Arizona desert that killed U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

Agents took their concerns up the chain of command at the ATF, and to the Justice Department's inspector general. When that didn't work, they went to Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. Grassley has been working with his House counterpart, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), who had the power to initiate hearings.

As a result, Holder has ordered an internal investigation at Justice, and has said he didn't learn of the program until this year. Both Grassley and Issa have complained about the department's lack of cooperation as they have tried to find out who authorized the program and let it continue when it was clear that there was no way to keep track of the weapons. Further, they have warned about retaliation against ATF acting director Kenneth E. Melson, who took the unusual step of testifying July 4, accompanied by a private attorney rather than one from the Justice Department.

At last week's public hearing, one ATF official apologized for mistakes made, and agent William Newell said more "risk assessment" should have been conducted.

That's a start, but not enough. Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.), a member of Issa's committee, agrees.

"You've got the highest-level local and regional people from ATF who are taking a fall for the team," Meehan said after the hearing. "But it's clear that they were operating with authority from above, certainly in collaboration with the prosecutor's office and, one would believe, with approvals right on up to the highest level of the Department of Justice."

Holder needs to be more forthcoming on the decisions that led to the death of Terry and others. He needs to detail how he plans to recover the other 1,400 weapons that "walked" before they end up at a crime scene. Finally, he needs to explain how the administration went from wanting to ban assault weapons to supplying them to drug lords.


Contact columnist Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.

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