Fast and Furious: Obama Fits Where?
On October 26th, 2009, Department of Justice officials met to discuss the mounting violence in Mexico. They decided to change their current strategy, and aimed to eliminate gun-trafficking pipelines. In November, they launched an operation under Project Gunrunner, the Department of Justice’s broader Southwest Border Initiative, described as an “inter-agency effort to combat Mexico-based trafficking groups.” “Gunwalking” was not mentioned at the meeting.
However, a “gunwalking” operation lasted approximately 15 months, resulting in grand jury indictments of 34 suspects in drug and firearms trafficking organizations. An estimated 1,400 weapons were lost by the ATF in Mexico. Two of the missing weapons linked to the operation turned up at the Arizona murder scene of United States Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Whistle-blowing led to a Congressional investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the citing of Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt.
A project of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) intended to stem the flow of firearms into Mexico, in an attempt to deprive Mexican drug cartels of weapons. The primary tactic of Project Gunrunner is interdiction of straw purchasers and unlicensed dealers to prevent legal guns from entering the black market; between 2005 and 2008, 650 such cases involving 1,400 offenders and 12,000 firearms were referred for prosecution. However, other tactics (“gunwalking” and “controlled delivery”) have led to controversy. In early 2011, the project became controversial when it was revealed that Operation Wide Receiver (2006–2007) and Operation Fast and Furious (2009–2010) had allowed guns to “walk” into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
In a gunwalking operation, guns bought by straw purchasers, individuals in America with clean records, for drug cartels are allowed to “walk” across the border into Mexico, instead of being seized by ATF agents. The stated aim is for ATF agents to follow the paths of guns from straw purchasers through middlemen and into the hierarchy of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. The tracked weapons are to be used as evidence to pin larger crimes against the cartel as they work to break it up or at least eliminate the gun-trafficking routes. According to whistleblowers and investigators, however, agents never made the attempt to actually trace the guns.
Fast and Furious
In January 2010, agents with the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, a multi-agency network run by the Justice Department, are brought in to help. The manpower includes investigators from the Homeland Security Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The operation is soon named “Fast and Furious” by field agents because some suspects operate out of an auto-repair shop and street-race.
At that time, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms agents alert the staff of Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that the ATF allowed straw buyer Jaime Avila to make repeated purchases of guns after his name had been entered into a “suspect person database” on January 13, 2009.
In March, some ATF agents voiced their concern that weapons distributed through gunwalking might be used for crimes in Mexico or even the United States. In October, the brother of the former state attorney general of Chihuahua, Mexico is killed. The ATF learns that Fast and Furious weapons were found at the scene.
On December 11th, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a firefight while on patrol. The ATF would determine that two of the guns involved in the shooting came from Fast and Furious. The operation continued for another six weeks nonetheless. Soon after Terry’s death, ATF agents speak with Grassley again to seek his help in stopping the operation. The family of ATF agent Brian Terry would file a $25 million wrongful death claim against the United States on February 1st, 2012.
January 25, 2011, Attorney Dennis Burke announces indictments along with the first public details of the case, ending Operation Fast and Furious. January 27, Senator Grassley begins his inquiry by sending a request for information to ATF director Kenneth Melson.
On February 4th, in response to mounting criticism, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich writes to Grassley, asserting that any claim “that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them to Mexico — is false. ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”
Also in February, Attorney General Eric Holder asks the inspector general of the Department of Justice to begin an investigation of Fast and Furious. ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson announces the formation of a panel to “review the bureau’s current firearms trafficking strategies employed by field division managers and special agents.”
On March 31st, Representative Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, subpoenaed the Fast and Furious documents. He and Grassley team up.
Acting Director Melson is issued a subpoena from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the next day. A month later, Attorney General Holder testified for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee that he had first heard of Operation Fast and Furious only over the past few weeks.
Whistleblowers testify before the House Oversight committee. ATF agent John Dodson tells lawmakers, “I cannot begin to think how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest.” On June 15, Issa held a congressional hearing, bringing together Weich, whistleblowers, and relatives of Terry.
On July 4th, ATF director Melson secretly met with Issa and Grassley, explaining that the priority at the Department of Justice appeared to be the protection of senior officials from political fallout. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would hold a second hearing on July 26.
In August, three important Fast and Furious supervisors were transferred to new management positions at ATF headquarters in Washington. U.S. attorney Burke was also questioned by congressional investigators. On August 30, ATF director Melson was reassigned to a new post in the Justice Department and replaced by B. Todd Jones. This was widely seen as punishment for his cooperation with Congress. U.S. attorney Burke also announced his resignation.
On October 12, 2011, congressional investigators issued a subpoena for communications from Attorney General Holder relating to the federal gunrunning operation. Investigators uncover memos indicating Attorney General Holder had known about Operation Fast and Furious for close to a year, not a few weeks as he had stated in May 2011. On November 8th, in congressional testimony, Holder admits for the first time that gunwalking was used in Fast and Furious. Holder testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee that, “this operation was flawed in concept, as well as in execution.”
In December, documents revealed that some ATF agents discussed using Fast and Furious to provide anecdotal cases to support controversial new gun rules. During the investigations, the DOJ refuses to turn over internal communications related to the February 4 letter, which denied gunwalking. Representative Issa threatened Attorney General Holder with a committee vote on contempt.
On February 2, 2012, Attorney General Holder testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that firings and charges against Justice Department officials who oversaw Fast and Furious are likely to come in the next six months. He also denied any cover-up.
On June 12, 2012, Attorney General Holder testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and rejects calls for his resignation. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recommends that Attorney General Holder be cited for contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents relating to the Fast and Furious operation June 20th.
On June 28, 2012, the House of Representatives votes 255-67 to hold Holder in criminal contempt. This is the first time in American history that the head of the Justice Department has been held in contempt by Congress. On August 13, 2012, the House Oversight Committee files a civil lawsuit against Holder over Operation Fast and Furious documents.
President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over the documents sought by the investigating committee preventing future prosecution of AG Holder. On July 31, 2012, the first of a three-part joint staff Congressional report is released, Fast and Furious: Anatomy of a Failed Operation, which lays blame for the failed gun-running probe on Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson and Deputy Director William Hoover. Hoover would resign that day.
On September 19, the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report on the operation. The report finds 14 employees of the ATF and the Justice Department responsible for management failures. After the release, former acting ATF head Kenneth Melson retires and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein resigns.
The Bad Guys
On November 7th, 2011, a federal grand jury in the District of Arizona hands up an 11-count indictment. It alleges that on December 14, 2010, five of the defendants (Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga, Ivan Soto-Barraza, Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes and Lionel Portillo-Meza) were involved in a firefight with Border Patrol agents during which Terry was fatally shot. The men are charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, attempted interference with commerce by robbery, carrying and using a firearm during a crime of violence, assault on a federal officer and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. The indictment is unsealed on July 9th, 2012.
On September 6th, 2012, Mexican authorities arrest Leonel Sanchez Jesus Meza, wanted in the killing of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. On December 13, 2012, Jaime Avila is sentenced to 57 months in prison for his role in buying weapons that were found at the site of the killing of patrol agent Brian A. Terry. On June 17, 2014, Lionel Portillo Meza, a suspect in the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, is extradited from Mexico to the U.S.
We had a controversial program gone awry under the watch of the ATF and DOJ. Several officials resigned, were reassigned, or retired. The Attorney General was held in contempt of Congress. All the bad guys have been rounded up or are being rounded up. What does the Obama have to do with it?