The House Oversight Committee has released interviews with four ATF agents indicate that a top official in the Department of Justice may have lied to, or at the least misled, Congress on a controversial operation that put guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels, one of which was used to kill a Border Patrol agent. Ronald Weich, an Assistant Attorney General under Eric Holder, assured Congress in writing that the ATF and Department of Justice “made every effort” seize all illegally-purchased weapons. However, the ATF agents testifed that the ATF and DoJ deliberately allowed hundreds of such weapons to cross the border as part of Operation Fast and Furious:
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. …
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 scene 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.
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.
When the agents raised objections to the wisdom and legality of the operation, they were met with a rather pointed response:
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.”
Agents clearly didn’t agree, and accurately predicted the outcome of allowing the weapons to cross the border:
ATF agents interviewed by congressional investigators described supervisors trying to tamp down agents’ misgivings about the strategy to allow the weapons purchases.
Larry Alt, an ATF agent, told investigators agents opposed the weapons sales as early as December 2009 and wanted to arrest straw purchasers, who are paid to buy guns for others. Mr. Alt said he agreed with a fellow agent who expressed the view that “someone was going to die.”
Supervisors responded by saying the operation was “sanctioned” by higher-ups. They also cited Mexico’s surging drug violence—187 murders in Sinaloa state in one month— as reason for the strategy.
“I believe we are righteous in our plan to dismantle this entire [trafficking] organization and to rush in to arrest any one person without taking into account the entire scope of the conspiracy would be ill advised. …,” wrote David Voth, an ATF supervisor who was leading Fast and Furious, to fellow agents in an April 2010 email cited in the 51-page report scheduled to be released Wednesday.
Voth scolded agents for their dissent in another e-mail and told them that “higher-ups” were watching:
“We are all entitled to our respective (albeit different) opinions however we all need to get along and realize that we have a mission to accomplish.”
He added: “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.”
And yet, when Congress demanded answers, Welch insisted that nothing of the kind had happened — at least at first:
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.
Not only was “every effort” clearly not made, the ATF was deliberately refusing to interdict hundreds of weapons. The DoJ later attempted to walk back this unequivocal denial by stating that they only interdicted the purchasers carrying weapons across the border, which would make the earlier letter entirely irrelevant.
Weich faces the Oversight panel later today to answer questions on this operation and his response to Congress. If he doesn’t come up with something better, expect a contempt citation from the House.
Update: I got the release from Oversight, but I’m going to send you to Michelle Malkin on the background. The Boss Emeritus has images of the e-mails themselves, and since she’s been a stalwart on this story from the beginning, she has important context as well:
- The first e-mail from March 10, 2010, to Operation Fast and Furious Group VII Leader David Voth indicates that the two most senior leaders in ATF, Acting Director Kenneth Melson, and Deputy Director Billy Hoover, were “being briefed weekly on” Operation Fast and Furious. The document shows that both Melson and Hoover were “keenly interested in case updates.”
- A second e-mail from March 12, 2010, shows that Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations William McMahon was so excited about Fast and Furious that he received a special briefing on the program in Phoenix – scheduled for a mere 45 minutes after his plane landed.
- A third – and perhaps the most disturbing – e-mail from April 12, 2010, indicates that Acting Director Melson was very much in the weeds with Operation Fast and Furious. After a detailed briefing of the program by the ATF Phoenix Field Division, Acting Director Melson had a plethora of follow-up questions that required additional research to answer. As the document indicates, Mr. Melson was interested in the IP Address for hidden cameras located inside cooperating gun shops. With this information, Acting Director Melson was able to sit at his desk in Washington and – himself – watch a live feed of the straw buyers entering the gun stores to purchase dozens of AK-47 variants.
Will the media put pressure on Obama to do something about what looks like an obvious attempt to hide information from Congress by the DoJ?
Update II: Jeff Dunetz argues that the ATF’s botched operation proves the case against big-government solutions:
Operation Fast and Furious is a perfect example of what happens when government gets too big. It’s objective is not to serve the people but to serve itself. This lame-brained scheme reads like a lousy buddy movie comedy, where superiors ignore the objections of the their own personnel who know better, but even more importantly they ignore the black and white results of their misguided plan. Allow me to correct that, the results weren’t black and white they were red, the blood of Americans, including at least one hero, Border Agent Brian Terry.
Thank God the ATF doesn’t control the Navy Seals, they probably would have sent Bin Laden a box of hand grenades prior to the operation in Pakistan to capture/kill the terrorist leader.
One doesn’t need to be an ATF supervisor to know that this plan, basically arming drug cartels was doomed from the start. But most of the time, logic and the federal government are mutually exclusive.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with the idea that this proves anything, especially vis a vis the Navy SEALs, since the military is, after all, another government operation. Border control falls squarely in the purview of the federal government, including (if not especially) arms flow. The point about unresponsiveness is well noted, but this isn’t an area where private-sector alternatives will work. I think what this proves is that we need intelligent and responsive professionals in charge of legitimate government agencies, and that we don’t have that at the DoJ at the moment.
Update III: Weich, not Welch, and his title is Assistant Attorney General. Thanks to Bob S for the correction.