ATF’s Fast and Furious,The Gift that keeps on taking
Finding someone to stand up and take responsibility for the feds’ ill-advised gun-walk-to-Mexico program has been anything but fast. Only the denying, obfuscating and bus-throwing-under has been furious.
Months into a congressional investigation into Project Gunrunner and its Arizona-led wing, Operation Fast and Furious, we know only a little more. In large part, this is because Attorney General Eric Holder and his Department of Justice have expended far more energy covering up than coming clean.
Gunrunner, conceived and approved somewhere by someone around October 2009, was tasked to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The goal was to allow “straw man” gun purchases in the U.S. and track the high-powered weapons to their expected destination, Mexico’s violent drug cartels.
In practice, this proved a logistical and public relations disaster. This became clear in North Texas earlier this year, when a gun used to kill a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent in Mexico traced back to two brothers from a Dallas suburb under Gunrunner surveillance. ICE Agent Jamie Zapata’s slaying followed by two months the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Nogales, Ariz. The gun that killed him also was to have been under ATF monitoring.
Even as Justice Department officials have stalled and stonewalled, what new details have emerged are alarming.
Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch’s letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee concedes that Fast and Furious guns have turned up at 11 other violent crime scenes in the U.S. The Welch letter also says 1,418 firearms were circulated under the program — and it’s not clear how many remain missing.
Almost improbably, three key Fast and Furious supervisors have been given new management positions at ATF’s Washington headquarters. William G. McMahon had been deputy director of operations in the West; William D. Newell and David Voth were field supervisors who oversaw Fast and Furious out of the Phoenix office.
After the Los Angeles Times broke this news, ATF officials insisted the moves were not promotions but “lateral” transfers. This view would not be shared by many field agents, including those charged with executing Fast and Furious over their own misgivings. In testimony, they also describe McMahon, Newell and Voth as enthusiastic supporters of the disastrous program.
So to translate ATF higher-ups, these three mid-level bosses were not kicked upstairs, just shoved out of view.
Meanwhile, Kenneth E. Melson, the ATF’s acting director, says he learned of the program’s details in January 2011 and only after it had been shut down. He apparently doesn’t recall a December 2009 briefing and other “periodic updates” that Welch notes in his letter to Congress.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has been a leader in demanding information on this fiasco, as he should on behalf of his border-state constituents. Yes, it’s possible he sees partisan advantage in going after a Democratic administration, but it doesn’t make him wrong.
Texas ties to ATF gun-walking program
— In October 2010, Otilio Osorio of Lancaster purchases a Romarm-Cugir model Draco 7.62 pistol from a gun shop south of Fort Worth. Soon after, the DEA and ATF coordinate an undercover weapons purchase by an informant in North Texas.
— On Feb. 15, 2011, Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, is shot to death in Mexico. A Romarm-Cugir model Draco 7.62 pistol used in the killing is traced to Otilio Osorio. Two weeks later, he and his brother are arrested on gun-smuggling charges.
— A July 22, 2011, letter from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch to congressional investigators reveals that guns supposedly under surveillance in the ATF’s Fast and Furious program have turned up at 11 violent crime scenes in the U.S. Included are 42 weapons seized at two scenes in El Paso.
— Sen. John Cornyn writes to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding information on any programs similar to Fast and Furious operating in Texas, past or present.