In emotional testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Phoenix-based Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents also apologized to the family of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian A. Terry, slain last year by alleged cartel associates in a firefight where two weapons purchased in the risky ATF program were recovered.
"What we have here is a colossal failure of leadership," said ATF agent Pete Forcelli, a supervisor in the Phoenix office. "We weren't giving guns to people for killing bear, we were giving guns to people to kill other humans. This was a catastrophic disaster."
Forcelli and fellow agents John Dodson and Olindo Casa said they repeatedly raised concerns to their bosses about the risks associated with ATF's Operation Fast and Furious, designed to dismantle large cartel trafficking networks. But, they said, their warnings were dismissed.
"We were mandated to let these guns go," Dodson said.
The program began in 2009 and abruptly ended shortly after Terry's Dec. 15 death. The weapon used to kill Terry has not yet been identified.
Testimony from the agents and Terry's family were part of a congressional inquiry into the ATF program.
Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said the allegations raised by the agents were being "taken very seriously." He said a separate internal Justice Department investigation was ongoing.
But committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has helped direct the congressional review, said major questions about the operation remain unanswered. Grassley and Issa said, the operation failed to achieve its goal, netting about 20 low-level suspects.
"Who thought it was a good idea?" Grassley said. "Why did this happen? The president said he didn't authorize it and that the attorney general (said he) didn't authorize it. They have both admitted that a 'serious mistake' may have been made. There are a lot of questions and a lot of investigating to do. But one thing has become clear already — this was no mistake."
Issa said senior ATF officials in Washington were briefed weekly on the program.
"ATF will not comment on any of the allegations brought at the hearing due to the ongoing criminal investigation and federal prosecution (into Terry's death), as well as (Justice Department's) Office of Inspector General review," ATF spokesman Drew Wade said.
At the hearing, committee members appeared to be shaken by the testimony and mystified by the strategy.
"With these guns going to Mexico, what we are doing is turning the guns on ourselves," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel's ranking Democrat. "This is unprecedented," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a former federal prosecutor.
Prior to joining the ATF in Phoenix, Dodson told the panel that he had "never been involved in or even heard of an operation in which law enforcement officers let guns walk."
"I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest."