In the fall of 2009, American officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who were stationed in Mexico started noticing a sharp spike in the number of guns heading into the country. But what made things especially strange was that many of them were being traced back to the ATF’s own field office in Phoenix.
Over the next year, ATF’s Mexico-based officials raised louder and louder alarms all the way to Washington, as the number of guns flooding into Mexico grew from the hundreds into the thousands, and even more disturbingly, a number of them flowed into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
During this time, the United States representatives in Mexico were kept completely in the dark about the so-called “investigation.” Little did they know that the surge in guns heading into Mexico was no accident, but part of an elaborate but ill-conceived effort by the Obama administration to allow front men to purchase guns in Arizona and sell them to smugglers, in the hopes that it would eventually lead U.S. law enforcement officials to Mexican drug cartels.
From at least early 2010, their superiors assured the ATF officials in Mexico that everything was “under control” and that that the investigation would soon end. Yet it only ended in January 2011. By then, guns that were part of the investigation had already been linked to the tragic murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
These revelations are the latest in House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa’s probe into the ATF’s bungled “Operation Fast and Furious” program. A new report, released to coincide with a Tuesday hearing on the issue, focuses on the dangerous impact that the misguided program had on the Mexico side of the border.
“(T)his is the perfect storm of idiocy,” Carlos Canino, the ATF’s acting attaché to Mexico, said in the report, explaining how stunned he was when he finally found out about the “Fast and Furious” operation earlier this year.
According to interviews cited in the report with Canino, his predecessor Darren Gil, and others, the ATF in Mexico repeatedly aired concerns to the Phoenix field office and up the chain of command, to the ATF’s Washington office and into the Department of Justice.
Eventually, matters became so intense that Gil got into screaming matches with his boss in Washington, ATF’s international affairs chief, Dan Kumor. On one visit to Mexico, Lanny Breuer, the DOJ’s assistant attorney for the criminal division, actually praised the operation, according to testimony.
Incredibly, despite the diplomatic problems posed by the program, ATF officials in Mexico were told that they couldn’t learn more about the program because their superiors didn’t want them to brief the Mexican government.
Guns that were allowed into Mexico as part of “Fast and Furious” were eventually linked to a drug cartel that had kidnapped and murdered the brother of the attorney general in a western Mexican state. Other guns from the operation also may have been part of an incident in which members of a cartel shot at a federal police helicopter, forcing it to make an emergency landing and wounding two officers.
Due to the difficulty of tracing the guns, the full extent of the damage from the program may never be known, and 1,048 guns remain unaccounted for, according to the report.
“The faulty design of Operation Fast and Furious led to tragic consequences,” the report concludes. “The lessons learned from exposing the risky tactics used during Operation Fast and Furious will hopefully be a catalyst for better leadership and better law enforcement procedures.”
The report was put together by Issa’s committee, with help from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
At the Tuesday morning hearing, the House Oversight Committee will here from a number of the figures whose names come up in the report, including Canino, Gil, William Newell (who formerly ran the Phoenix field division), and William McMahon, ATF’s deputy assistant director for field operations (including Phoenix and Mexico).