Wednesday, June 15, 2011
ATF Agents: We Were Ordered to Let Guns Go
WASHINGTON, DC - Stunning testimony in Congress Wednesday about guns bought in Arizona that landed in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
During a Capitol Hill hearing about Operation Fast and Furious, several federal firearms agents told Congress they watched those illegal sales happen but were ordered to step aside.
A trio of 'whistleblower' agents from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Field Office here in Phoenix spoke out on their role in the operation.
The men say they were not allowed to make arrests on small-time gun buyers, allowing thousands of weapons to flow into Mexico.
Some of those guns were linked to the murder of an Arizona Border Patrol agent last year, and that agent's family went before Congress.
Agent Brian Terry was killed during a gun battle in the southern Arizona desert. Investigators found two assault rifles at the crime scene, bought from a gun store that was under surveillance by ATF agents.
Terry's family says it was irresponsible to let those weapons get away.
"We hope that all individuals involved in Brian's murder and those that played a role in putting weapons in their hands are found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," says Robert Heyer, Terry's cousin.
At Wednesday's congressional hearing, three ATF agents testified about the problems they saw with Operation Fast and Furious.
They say higher ups ordered them to step aside even when they witnessed illegal gun sales.
"Rather than conduct any enforcement actions we took notes we recorded observations, tracked movements of these individuals, wrote reports, nothing more. Knowing all the while that just days after these purchases, the guns we saw these individuals buy would begin turning up at crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico. And yet we still did nothing," says John Dodson, A.T.F. Special Agent.
These agents say there were ordered to let thousands of guns just walk away. The idea was to track those weapons and get the big cheese, but often that didn't happen. The guns made their way into Mexico and many were used as murder weapons.
Lawmakers say this operation backfired.
"If these guns are flowing to Mexico basically what we're doing is turning a gun on ourselves," says Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings.
These ATF agents say they fought their bosses, trying to get the green light to bust low level gun buyers. They all believed people were going to die if the weapons made it across the border.
Agent Terry's sister wants to know why this risky operation was allowed to continue.
"Brian was about making a difference and justice and I just feel this country owes it to him because he spent his whole life fighting this country some way or another," says sister Michelle Terry Balogh.
The Justice Department says they told ATF agents no guns should be allowed to cross the border into Mexico. They are planning to do an investigation into the program. And for his part, President Obama has called this ATF operation a 'mistake'.
Follow this story
* Congressional Report Criticizes ATF Gun Operation
* U.S. Guns Account for 70% of Firearms Seized in Mexico
Statement by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer
“I am outraged by findings in a new Congressional report that alleges federal agents were instructed to stand aside and do nothing as up to 2,000 weapons were illegally purchased in Arizona and resold. In many cases, the end result appears to have been the arming of violent drug cartels south of the border.
“During Operation Fast and Furious in 2010, according to this report, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms were ordered to simply track these ‘straw buyer’ weapons sales but not intervene. Longtime federal agents have now testified before Congress that allowing these weapons to leave the premises, a practice generally known as ‘gun walking,’ was a marked departure from accepted law enforcement practices.
“ATF agents lost track of many of these weapons, including assault weapons and .50 caliber sniper rifles. A significant number undoubtedly found their way to Mexican drug cartels. Tragically, two AK-47s traced back to Operation Fast and Furious later turned up at the crime scene near Rio Rico, Arizona, where Arizona Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered by bandits. Authorities are still looking for the murder weapon.
“If the allegations contained in this Congressional report are accurate, then Operation Fast and Furious endangered the lives of innocent people on both sides of the border. The people of Arizona deserve answers from the Department of Justice and ATF as to how this could have been sanctioned, let alone encouraged. We may never know how many weapons illegally sold as part of this operation later turned up at a crime scene. But the connection between this failed federal operation and the death of Border Patrol Agent Terry is clear. The Congressional report puts it best: ‘The death of Border Agent Brian Terry was likely a preventable tragedy.’”