Firearms sold during Operation Fast and Furious have turned up at scenes of at least 11 violent crimes in the U.S., in addition to a shootout with Border Patrol that ended in the slaying of an agent in southern Arizona last year, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Information from a Justice Department letter obtained by the Times on Tuesday expands the apparent danger posed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ operation and renews questions about when the agency’s acting Director Kenneth E. Melson knew about the operation.
The July 22 letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich and sent to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), does not give details on the crimes or say how many guns turned up at each scene. But the Times reported that they occurred in several Arizona cities and El Paso, Texas.
An anonymous source speaking with the Times said that weapons began turning up at crime scenes in Phoenix, Nogales, Douglas and Glendale in Arizona and in El Paso as early as January 2010, adding that in one instance, 40 weapons were recovered at a crime scene in El Paso.
The letter also says that ATF officials advised the Justice Department that Melson “likely became aware on or about Dec. 9, 2009 as part of a briefing following a seizure of weapons in Douglas, Ariz.”
If accurate, that means Melson learned of the program about a month after it started, contradicting his own account that he didn’t learn about the operation until January of this year when it was discontinued.
Weich wrote that ATF had told the department that, although Melson was given regular briefings, “periodic updates were provided to the acting director as determined to be necessary by the [ATF] Office of Field Operations. These briefings typically coincided with planning field visits or in preparation for meetings.”
Weich added that Attorney General Eric Holder first spoke to Melson about the program “in or about late April” of this year during a regular briefing, and he reemphasized that DOJ official didn’t know about the tactics being used in the operation until this year.
Supervisors from the ATF’s Phoenix Field Office, where Operation Fast and Furious originated, have said their efforts were meant to identify and build a case against gun-trafficking leaders and members of Mexican drug cartels. But the operation ended with little progress against either target, and in the process, circulated a total of 1,418 firearms, according to Weich’s letter.
That number is much lower than earlier estimates from authorities, who said that at least 2,000 guns had vanished. It is unclear how many remain missing.