Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why Did the ATF Arm Mexican Drug Cartels?

By John Romano
(YBH) – This week Darrel Issa and Charles Grassley released the findings of a Congressional investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [ATF]  Operation Fast and Furious [F&F].

The program was designed to allow criminals to buy and transport guns to Mexico so that the ATF could later tie them back to drug cartels when they were used in crimes.  The operation turned into a nightmare when two of the guns were found at the scene of the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in late 2010.  Since then DOJ and ATF brass have each denied that guns were ever knowingly allowed into criminal hands.  A group of lower level agents involved in the operation have testified before a Congressional Committee that isn’t so, and that for two full years the ATF allowed approximately 1,700 high-powered firearms into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
Some background.
In 2009, the ATF determined that in order to build a case against Mexico’s main Drug Trafficking Organizations or DTO’s, they would allow the groups to use “straw purchasers” to acquire military grade weapons in the United States and smuggle them back to Mexico.  Later when the guns were used in crimes the ATF or FBI, etc. could tie the gun back to the smugglers.
Some agents in the Phoenix division of the ATF complained about the obvious downsides of the program – that is, putting weapons in the hands of criminals.  According to the Congressional report released this week, those concerns were ignored and downplayed.
An ATF agent named John Dodson, one of four whistle blowers Congress interviewed,  estimates that around 1,700 guns were allowed into the hands of criminals because of operation F&F.  One of those weapons was allegedly used to kill Brian Terry.  Agent Dodson summed up his frustration best in the following passage to Congress:
Oh, certainly. Well, every time we voiced concerns, every time we asked the question. And this is so hard to convey because I understand you guys weren’t there, you didn’t live it. But everyday being out here watching a guy go into the same gun store buying another 15 or 20 AK-47s or variants or . . . five or ten Draco pistols or FN Five-seveNs . . . guys that don’t have a job, and he is walking in here spending $27,000 for three Barrett .50 calibers at . . . walks in with his little bag going in there to buy it, and you are sitting there every day and you can’t do anything, you have this conversation every day. You asked me . . . a specific time where you voiced where you want to do this. Every day, all right? It was like are we taking this guy?  No.  Why not?  Because it is not part of the plan, or it is not part of the case.
In an email dated Friday April 2, 2010 an ATF supervisor named David Voth acknowledges that guns are being allowed to walk stating, (emphasis ours) “Our subjects purchased 359 firearms in March alone, to include numerous Barret .50 caliber rifles.  I believe we are righteous in our plan to dismantle this entire organization and to rush in and to arrest any one person without taking into account the entire scope of the conspiracy would be ill advised to the overall good of the mission.”  The email also contained stats about the rising tide of violence within Mexico due, to their thinking, to operation F&F.  Agent Voth viewed rising violence in Mexico as proof that operation F&F was working.  One agent testified that, “he was jovial, if not, not giddy, but just delighted about that, hey, 20 of our guns were recovered with 350 pounds of dope in Mexico last night. And it was exciting.  To them it proved the nexus to the drug cartels. It validated that . . . we were really working the cartel case here.”  The email and testimony on the subject are important because later both the DOJ and ATF denied ever allowing guns to be put in criminal hands.
At the heart of this controversy is the definition of what constitutes a “gun walk”.  In the case of operation F&F, the DOJ and ATF used a very strict and narrow interpretation as to what constitutes a gun walk.  Accordingly, in their view a gun walk only takes place if an ATF agent “physically places an AK-47 into the hands of a straw purchaser and then lets that straw purchaser walk out of sight.”  Allowing a suspected gun runner to buy multiple guns and transfer them to a third party didn’t constitute a breach of protocol in their view.
The whistle blowing agents contradict this sentiment and testified before Congress that they were trained to never knowingly allow guns to walk.  Further, not one agent interviewed by Congress can remember an incident of ATF superiors allowing any gun to walk before operation F&F.  Sometimes agents allowed buyers to leave a gun dealership or pass the gun to a third party before confiscating it, but the idea of actually allowing the guns to disappear altogether was unheard of until operation F&F.
On December 14, 2010 the full effect of operation F&F hit home when two of the weapons the government allowed to “walk” into cartel hands were used to kill Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.  Those guns were purchased by a gun runner named Jaime Avila on January 16, 2010.  During operation F&F Mr. Avila purchased 52 guns in total.  None of them were apprehended by the ATF; all were presumably allowed into cartel hands.  The ATF was made aware of Mr. Avila’s gun purchases and gun running activities in late 2009, a full two months before he purchased the weapons used in the Terry murder.
The day after Agent Terry was killed, Jaime Avila was arrested for the crime “lying and buying” weapons.  Whereas Mr. Avila purchased the guns knowing that he was going to transfer them to a third party.  Oddly, the government didn’t charge him with the purchase of the two guns found at the scene of Brian Terry’s murder.  Instead they charged him in relation to guns he purchased six months later.  It should be noted that a man named Manuel Osorio-Arellanes was eventually charged with Brian Terry’s murder.
After Mr. Terry’s tragic death last year, the ATF immediately wrapped up operation Fast and Furious.  Twenty suspected gun runners were rounded up and arrested.  In doing so the ATF branded the operation a success  At a press conference announcing the indictments of the 20 gun runners, the Special Agent in Charge of the presser, William Newell, was asked if the ATF knowingly allowed guns to be purchased and walked to Mexico.  His response: “Hell, No!”
In February of this year, the DOJ picks up where agent Newell’s “Hell, No!” leaves off.  In a letter to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley in response to an earlier inquiry the DOJ writes, “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.  ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”
Both responses contradict each of the whistle blowers who testified before Congress.  Someone is lying.
In May, the DOJ changed its tone slightly in another correspondence with Senator Grassley, but stuck to its earlier denial writing, “It remains our understanding that ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious did not knowingly permit straw buyers to take guns into Mexico.”  ”Did not knowingly” being the operational and relevant change in tone.
The final congressional report offered by the Issa/Grassley commission offers a different take on the DOJ’s understanding of operation F&F:
The [DOJ's] leadership allowed the ATF to implement this flawed strategy, fully aware of what was taking place on the ground. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona encouraged and supported every single facet of Fast and Furious. Main Justice was involved in providing support and approving various aspects of the Operation, including wiretap applications that would necessarily include painstakingly detailed descriptions of what ATF knew about the straw buyers it was monitoring.
In the final analysis, Brian Terry’s death was not entirely in vain.  It ended operation F&F, which from the outset seemed to be one the most ill-conceived and flawed plans ever executed in dealing with a criminal enterprise.  It has also tightened the focus of America’s media and law enforcement authorities on the havoc and death caused by the Mexican drug cartels.  Surely not worth Mr. Terry’s horrible death, but the outcome nonetheless.
Operation Fast and Furious led to the arming of Mexico’s most dangerous criminals plain and simple, whether the DOJ’s and ATF’s denials are true or not.  Operation Fast and Furious was an epic fail and some heads will likely indeed roll at both agencies.
The fallout has already begun as the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the acting head of the ATF, Kenneth Melson, will likely resign this week.
This blog is dedicated to U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry who was killed by Mexican Bandits who were assisted by the Obama administration.

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