Tuesday’s searing four-hour hearing on Operation Fast and Furious found agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives disagreeing with one another, and admitting that mistakes were made, while Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform continued to push their gun control agenda.
Carlos Canino, the ATF’s acting attaché to Mexico, told Congressman Darrell Issa’s committee that, “I can say with authority that walking guns is not a recognized (investigative) technique.”
“It infuriates me that people, my colleagues…may be killed with these weapons,” he commented during emotional testimony. “I believe what happened here is inexcusable…and we in Mexico had no part in it.”
In late 2009, ATF officials stationed in Mexico began to notice a large volume of guns appearing there that were traced to the ATF’s Phoenix Field Division. These weapons were increasingly recovered in great numbers from violent crime scenes. ATF intelligence analysts alerted Darren Gil, Attaché to Mexico, and Carlos Canino, Deputy Attaché, about the abnormal number of weapons. Gil and Canino communicated their worries to leadership in Phoenix and Washington, D.C., only to be brushed aside. Furthermore, ATF personnel in Arizona denied ATF personnel in Mexico access to crucial information about the case, even though the operation directly involved their job duties and affected their host country.—Joint Staff Report on the Department of Justice’s Operation Fast and Furious: Fueling Cartel Violence, Page 4
Former Phoenix Special Agent in Charge William Newell, on whose watch Fast and Furious was launched and botched, initially accepted some responsibility for the operation gone bad. Later during questioning in which he repeatedly appeared evasive and unwilling to answer questions, he came under fire from Issa. The chairman accused Newell of appearing “as a paid non-answerer.”
Frustration was also expressed by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, ranking Democrat on the committee, who told Newell, “Your testimony has been very frustrating to both sides.”
And Congressman Dr. Paul Gosar from Arizona stated that the committee could not get an answer from Newell.
“This is absurd,” Gosar said.
The day was slightly less brutal for William McMahon, ATF deputy director for Field Operations, but he also tried to accept responsibility for the operation, which allowed some 2,000 guns to enter the illegal firearms pipeline.
Rather than share information, senior leadership within both ATF and the Department of Justice (DOJ) assured their representatives in Mexico that everything was “under control.” The growing number of weapons recovered in Mexico, however, indicated otherwise. Two recoveries of large numbers of weapons in November and December 2009 definitively demonstrated that Operation Fast and Furious weapons were heading to Mexico. In fact, to date, there have been 48 different recoveries of weapons in Mexico linked to Operation Fast and Furious. —Joint Staff Report on the Department of Justice’s Operation Fast and Furious: Fueling Cartel Violence, Page 4
However, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton blamed Congress for not allowing the ATF to have a permanent director for the past six years. She accused Republicans of being totally controlled by the gun lobby. Democrat Gerald Connolly asserted that “Congress has done everything in our power to de-fang the ATF.”
Norton and Rep. Carolyn Maloney contended that a new gun trafficking law might be the answer to gun running, but Canino disagreed.
“I don’t think federalizing street crime is the answer,” he said. “I think there’s plenty of gun laws.”
The hearing came hours after Issa and Senator Charles Grassley released their second Joint Staff Report on Operation Fast and Furious, which this column discussed earlier.
Newell and McMahon were repeatedly quizzed about who thought up the Fast and Furious operation, and neither would offer a direct answer. Canino and his former boss in Mexico, now-retired agent Darren Gil repeatedly told the committee that the operation was conducted contrary to every known investigative practice of the ATF, which had never knowingly allowed guns to walk.
To make matters worse, ATF officials in Mexico did not even know that their fellow agents were shutting them out of the investigation. With reassurances from ATF Phoenix and ATF Headquarters in Washington D.C. that things were under control, ATF officials in Mexico remained unaware that ATF was implementing a strategy of allowing straw purchasers to continue to transfer firearms to traffickers. Even though large recoveries were taking place in Mexico, with the awareness of senior ATF officials in both Phoenix and Washington D.C, ATF officials in Mexico did not have the full picture. What they were able to piece together based on several large weapons seizures made them extremely nervous. .—Joint Staff Report on the Department of Justice’s Operation Fast and Furious: Fueling Cartel Violence, Page 17
Newell came under intense questioning by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) a former district attorney whose knowledge of criminal investigations became evident in his delivery. He repeatedly asked Newell if, after guns were recovered at Mexican crime scenes and traced back to specific suspected gun buyers in Arizona, if those individuals were ever approached and quizzed about how their guns ended up south of the border.
Newell and McMahon both insisted that taking one straw buyer into custody would only result in the cartels using someone else as an illegal gun buyer. However, that answer was not sufficient for Gowdy, who told Newell that the operation, as structured, “was never going to work.”
But the committee appeared focused on criticisms leveled by Canino and Gil, the latter who said in the closing minutes of the hearing that he would have shut down the operation immediately when he saw that guns were turning up in Mexico.
And Canino repeatedly told the committee that the agency “just threw (guidelines) out the window” in conducting Operation Fast and Furious.
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