ATF Official Attempts to Deny ‘Gun-Walking’ in Botched Sting Operation

Fred Lucas | July 27, 2011 | 11:35am EDT
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( – Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday that the agency did not knowingly allow guns to “walk” to Mexico.

The ATF’s “Fast and Furious” operation was intended to identify the “decision-makers” in Mexican cartels; track firearms destined for Mexico, and ultimately dismantle the drug cartels, William Newell, the former ATF Special Agent in charge of the Phoenix Field Division, told the committee.

“[I]t was not the purpose of the investigation to permit the transportation of firearms into Mexico, and to the best of my knowledge, none of the suspects in this case was ever witnessed by our agents crossing the border with firearms,” he said.

William McMahon, the ATF deputy assistant for field operations in the west, concurred, using the present tense.

“We do not let guns walk,” McMahon said, referring to ATF agents themselves. He made the point that the straw purchasers were letting the guns “walk,” and he said arresting them served no purpose since the goal of the operation was to arrest the higher-ups in Mexico.

The ATF, however, did instruct gun shops to let the straw purchases proceed. It is illegal to buy guns for those who cannot legally buy weapons themselves.

Other ATF officials told the committee that the ATF certainly did allow the guns to “walk,” and they said Operation Fast and Furious was an embarrassment to the agency.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) pointed to a Jan. 8, 2010 ATF memo from Newell that indicated guns were flowing to Mexico.

In the memo, written four months after Operation Fast and Furious started, Newell said, “Currently our strategy is to allow the transfer of firearms to continue to take place, albeit at a much slower pace, in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators who would continue to operate and illegally traffic firearms to Mexican DTOs [drug trafficking organizations].”

Chaffetz to Newell: “So it was the goal. It was the intention of the program to allow guns to be trafficked to Mexico, based on this memo. Is that correct?”

“No sir,” Newell responded. He said the weapons transfers were intended to “identify co-conspirators” so the ATF could further its investigation and disrupt the entire cartel, which otherwise would continue with its criminal activities.

“How many hundreds or thousands of weapons did you allow to be purchased, knowing that they were going to Mexico?” Chaffetz asked:

“Sir, the purchase was being done by a criminal organization,” Newell responded.

Newell again stated that the goal of Operation Fast and Furious was to “disrupt and dismantle” the Mexican cartels.

An angry Chaffetz rebutted, “I understand the goal. But the problem is, you are purposely, knowingly allowing guns to go to Mexico. You have information in 2009 that it’s being successful. Yet you never put a stop to it….And it continued on and on. Consequently, there were thousands of weapons that ended up in Mexico and killing people -- killing people. That’s the reason that we’re here today. When did you first think or know that guns were walking?”

Newell answered, “Sir, in this investigation, to the best of my knowledge, we didn’t let guns walk.” He added, “I truly believe, as I’ve said before, that we didn’t intentionally let guns walk.”

Under Operation Fast and Furious, launched in September 2009, the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives supervised the sale of guns to straw purchasers with the intent of tracing the guns to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

The ATF allowed about 2,000 guns to be sold in this manner. The operation was halted in December 2010 after two of the firearms were found at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. The investigation wrapped up with the indictment of 20 straw purchasers, but no one in the drug cartels – the primary target – was indicted.

Throughout the hearing, Committe Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and other members also expressed frustration with Newell.

Issa cited the testimony of other witnesses who said the ATF was clearly “walking guns” to Mexico, and he criticized Newell’s hair-splitting explanations.

“Only you and Mr. McMahon continue to say you didn’t let guns walk,” Issa said. “Are they lying or are you lying?”

Issa also described Newell as a “non-answerer.” “At some point, you need to go beyond more than ‘mistakes were made.”

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