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ATF Officials Admit Mistakes But Defend Operation Fast and Furious
Posted By Channing Turner On July 26, 2011 @ 5:32 pm In News | Comments Disabled
The strategy behind Operation Fast and Furious never involved allowing firearms to “walk” into Mexico, two former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives supervisors in charge of overseeing the operation told a House panel Tuesday.
But mistakes were made, and their plan backfired — reportedly letting thousands of firearms be trafficked across the border, and spurring an intense congressional investigation that has targeted senior ATF and Justice Department officials.
At the center of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s second hearing on the operation were Special Agent In Charge William D. Newell, who oversaw the operation at the Phoenix Field Division, and his boss, ATF Deputy Director for Field Operations William McMahon. The two supervisors admitted making mistakes during the operation.
“However good our intentions, regardless of our resource challenge, and notwithstanding the difficult legal hurdles we face in fighting firearms traffickers – we made mistakes,” McMahon said. “The advantage of hindsight and the benefit of a thorough review of this case clearly points me to things that I would have done differently.”
But they defended the strategy behind Fast and Furious, saying that it originated at the “street-level” as a way to enact an October 2009 proposal from the Justice Department that sought to establish a multi-agency “Southwest Border strategy” to combat Mexican drug cartels. That proposal recognized the ineffectiveness of simply intercepting weapons without taking on the networks used to transport them.
“The purpose of this investigation was to identify and disrupt and dismantle an entire firearms trafficking organization that we linked to Mexican drug cartels,” Newell said. “At no time in our strategy was it to allow guns to be taken across the border.”
Newell also said he “made every reasonable effort” to keep his ATF colleagues in Mexico briefed about the investigation.
But Newell had few answers for committee members intent on holding him and higher-ups responsible for the debacle. And in a committee known for partisan squabbles, both sides seemed frustrated with Newell’s responses.
“Special Agent Newell, I must tell you that your testimony has been quite frustrating, I think for both sides,” said ranking Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland.
Newell’s attorney, former DOJ official Paul Pelletier, flanked him at the hearing. Pelletier spent nine years at the Justice Department as the Criminal Fraud Section’s chief deputy and acting chief before leaving  in April, and his presence at the hearing highlighted similarities between Newell’s testimony and the opaque testimony of other DOJ officials who have appeared before the committee.
In particular, Newell and McMahon sparred with committee members over what constituted “walking guns.”
“In this investigation, to the best of my knowledge, we didn’t let guns walk,” Newell said. “To the best of my knowledge none of the suspects in this case was ever witnessed by our agents crossing the border with firearms.”
But these answers angered Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who said that Newell’s distinction didn’t change the facts and called him a “paid non-answerer.”
Issa cited a memo written by Newell in January 2010 that acknowledged that firearms had showed up in Mexico and lobbied for the operation to continue, “albeit at a slower pace.”
“From day one you had straw purchasers … buying hundreds of weapons and providing them to his intermediary,” he said. “It seems like you knowingly allowed these weapons to get out of your control, [and] to someone who was trafficking into Mexico. You saw the results. You allowed it to continue, and now you’re telling us, ‘We don’t let guns walk.’
“Before this investigation ends, I’ve got to have somebody in your position or from Justice admit that you knowingly let guns walk,” Issa added.
Several other ATF agents testified before the committee, including former ATF Attaché to Mexico Darren Gil, ATF Acting Attaché to Mexico Carlos Canino, ATF Senior Special Agent Jose Wall and ATF Team Leader for the Field Intelligence Support Team Lorren Leadmon. They confirmed that allowing guns to walk was an “unimaginable” violation of operating procedure.
“I can say with authority walking guns is not a recognized investigative technique,” Canino said. “It infuriates me that people, including my law enforcement, diplomatic and military colleagues, may be killed or injured with these weapons.”
But Newell said the agency didn’t have enough evidence to identify how the guns were being moved into Mexico and chose to continue with the operation.
“What we believed and what we suspected was far short of what we could prove,” he said.
That statement, Issa said, confirmed for him that ATF agents put building a case against traffickers above protecting lives.
“You didn’t quit because you didn’t have a case, so we continued selling until we had a dead federal agent and a scandal,” Issa said. “We have not yet seen the end of the violence from Operation Fast and Furious. The deadly consequences of this irresponsible program could last for years to come.”
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