Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Report Unloads on ATF for Mexican ‘Gunwalking’


Days before Attorney General Eric Holder is once again hauled before Congress to testify for Operation Fast and Furious, a new report sheds light on whether high-ranking officials knew, or have been honest about, one of the biggest failures in Justice Department history: a disastrous plan by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to allow gunrunners to “walk” firearms into the hands of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

These questions are crucial because Fast and Furious has not only become a huge political issue, it also determines who will take responsibility for allowing thousands of guns to move unimpeded into a war zone south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The gunwalking operation — an attempt to build cases by not stopping but monitoring the flow of U.S. straw-purchased weapons to Mexico’s cartels — eventually saw the ATF lose track of more than 2,000 guns, many in the hands of cartel hitmen.

Hundreds of weapons recovered at crime scenes in Mexico were later traced to Fast and Furious, including AK-47 variant rifles discovered at the scene of a Dec. 14, 2010, shootout between border bandits and a Border Patrol BORTAC tactical unit in Arizona. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in the fight.

But Fast and Furious wasn’t the first operation to run guns. The report, released by House Democrats, describes the plot as “the latest in a series of fatally flawed operations run by ATF agents in Phoenix and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office,” beginning with the 2006-2007′s Operation Wide Receiver. In the beginning, Phoenix-based ATF agents “went forward with plans to observe or facilitate hundreds of suspected straw firearm purchases,” according to the report. Faced with the risk of losing track of the guns, Wide Receiver was shuttered.
In two cases, named the “The Hernandez Case” and “The Medrano Case,” the ATF watched groups of conspirators cross into Mexico carrying straw-purchased guns. In “Medrano,” smugglers snuck more than 100 firearms into Mexico while under observation by the ATF.

Fast and Furious was much bigger, with greater potential rewards — and risks — for field agents, involving “a sizable network the operation of straw puchasers [the ATF] believed were trafficking military-grade assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels.” But then the operation went badly wrong. Guns disappeared, or appeared after gunfights with the Mexican military or in stash houses. Then agent Terry was shot.

Questions, however, linger over the role of senior administration officials — a sticking point for House Republicans. Late Friday, the Justice Department released e-mails between an aide to Attorney General Eric Holder and Dennis Burke, the former United States Attorney for the District of Arizona (who later resigned over the scandal), discussing Terry’s death the next morning. Two messages from headquarters (the location was redacted in the release) informed Burke of the shooting. The second e-mail, at 3:31 a.m. contained one line: “Our agent has passed away.”

“Horrible,” Burke replied at 9:09 a.m. that morning. Thirty-two minutes later, Burke e-mailed Holder aide Monty Wilkinson. “Not good,” Burke said.

“Tragic,” Wilkinson wrote back. “I’ve alerted the AG, the Acting [Deputy Attorney General], Lisa, etc.” That evening, Wilkinson sent Burke another message: “The guns found in the desert near the murder BP officer connect back to the investigation we were going to talk about — they were AK-47s purchased at a Phoenix gun store.”

But according to the Democrats’ report, Wilkinson never followed up with Holder about the link, nor did he discuss it again with Burke — which doesn’t, on its face, contradict Holder’s previous testimony that he’d only heard of the operation after the scandal became public.

“The Committee has obtained no evidence indicating that the Attorney General authorized gunwalking or that he was aware of such allegations before they became public,” said the report. “None of the 22 witnesses interviewed by the Committee claims to have spoken with the Attorney General about the specific tactics employed in Operation Fast and Furious prior to the public controversy.”

The same was not true for then-Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson, who was reassigned after lying to investigators over whether he knew about the operation (he received regular briefings, in fact, the report says). Questions also linger for then-Deputy Director William Hoover, also sacked, and why he “failed to inform” senior Justice Department officials about his concerns with the operation.

But did Holder’s aide, Wilkinson, really ever tell Holder? As of today’s report, that’s just speculation. However, expect Holder to get grilled on this subject very soon.

Help Us Transmit This Story

    Add to Your Blogger Account
    Put it On Facebook
    Tweet this post
    Print it from your printer
     Email and a collection of other outlets
     Try even more services

No comments:

Post a Comment