Gun-Running Timeline: How DOJ’s ‘Operation Fast and Furious’ Unfolded

Fred Lucas | July 7, 2011 | 5:45pm EDT
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Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered in Arizona on Dec., 2010. Two guns found at the scene had been purposely sold to gun traffickers in a program hatched by the Obama Administration. (AP photo)

( - Operation Fast and Furious was a program carried out by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a division of the U.S. Justice Department.

In this operation, which began in the fall of 2009 and continued into early 2011, the federal government purposefully allowed known or suspected gun smugglers to purchase guns at federally licensed firearms dealers in Arizona. The government did not seek to abort these gun purchases, intercept the smugglers after the purchases, or recover the guns they had purchased.

In some cases, as the government expected they would, the smugglers delivered the guns to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

The reported purpose of the operation was to track and uncover the entirety of the smuggling operations so they could be completely shutdown. However, two rifles sold to a smuggler in the course of Operation Fast and Furious in January 2010 ended up at the scene of the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.), and Sen. Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are currently investigating the operation.

Here is a timeline based on information the congressional investigation has so far uncovered.

Operation Fast and Furious Timeline:

September 2009 – Jan. 8, 2010: A Jan. 8, 2010 briefing paper from the ATF Phoenix Field Division Group VII says: “This investigation has currently identified more than 20 individual connected straw purchasers.” It further says: “To date (September 2009 – present) this group has purchased in excess of 650 firearms (mainly AK-47 variants) for which they have paid cash totaling more than $350,000.”

October 2009: The ATF’s Phoenix Field Division establishes a gun trafficking group called Group VII. Group VII initially began using the strategy of “gunwalking,” or allowing suspects to walk away with illegally purchased guns, according to a report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the staff of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The purpose was to wait and watch, in hope that law enforcement could identify other members of a trafficking network and build a large, complex conspiracy case,” the report says. It goes on to say: “Group VII initially began using the new gunwalking tactics in one of its investigations to further the Department’s strategy. The case was soon renamed ‘Operation Fast and Furious.’”

Nov. 25, 2009: The ATF began conducting surveillance of Jaime Avila as early as this date, according to the congressional report.

Early December 2009: “It should be noted that since early December, efforts to ‘slow down’ the pace of these firearms purchases have succeeded and will continue but not to the detriment of the larger goal of the investigation,” the ATF briefing paper from Jan. 8, 2010 says. “It should also be noted that the pace of firearms procurement by this straw purchasing group from late September to early December 2009 defied the ‘normal’ pace of procurement by other firearms trafficking groups investigated by this and other field divisions. The ‘blitz’ was extremely out of the ordinary and created a situation where measures had to be enacted in order to slow this pace down in order to perfect a criminal case.”

Jan. 4-Jan. 8, 2010: There were three recorded phone calls during this period “between the most prolific suspected straw-purchaser and the Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL),” according to the ATF briefing paper. “These conversations have been to schedule future purchases of AK-47 variant riffles. The anticipated purchase is about forty (40) rifles.”

Jan. 5, 2010: ATF agents met with Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Emory Hurley, the lead prosecutor in the matter, according to the briefing paper. The briefing paper says: “a determination was made that there was minimal evidence at this time to support any type of prosecution; therefore, additional firearms purchases should be monitored and additional evidence continued to be gathered.”

Further, US Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis Burke was briefed on this day. Burke “concurs with the assessment of his line prosecutors and fully supports the continuation of the investigation,” the briefing paper says. The paper goes on to say that then head of the ATF Phoenix Field Division, Special Agent in Charge William Newell, “has repeatedly met with the USA Burke regarding the on-going status of this investigation and both are in full agreement with the current investigative strategy.”

Jan. 8, 2010: The aforementioned briefing paper from the ATF Phoenix Field Division sheds further light on the operation:

--The paper makes clear: “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].”

--The ATF worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Phoenix Ariz. “Surveillance operations are now being coordinated with information being obtained from the REDACTED. This is being coordinated out the of the Phoenix OCDETF Strike Force, of which Phoenix Group VII is a full-time member.”

--“There have been five notable seizure events connected with this group, and approximately 53 firearms originally purchased by this group have been recovered. Three of these seizures have been in the Country of Mexico, one recovery in Douglas, AZ, and one recovery in Nogales, AZ. The U.S. recoveries were both believed to be destined for Mexico. It should be noted however that there has been one seizure in the Phoenix areas related to the ongoing DEA narcotics trafficking investigation.”

--“The seizures referenced above were not from any member of the targeted group of straw purchasers identified in this investigation. Rather they were from Hispanic individuals (both male and female) whose association with our target group is currently unknown.”

--“The ultimate goal is to secure [REDACTED] to identify and prosecute all co-conspirators of the DTO to include the 20 individual straw purchasers, the facilitators of the distribution cell centered here in Phoenix, the transportation cells taking firearms South, and ultimately to develop and provide prosecutable information to our Mexican law enforcement counterparts for actions.”

Jan. 15, 2010: A joint strategy meeting was planned for this day, according to the Jan. 8, 2010 ATF document, with the representatives from the ATF, the DEA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Jan. 16, 2010: Jaime Avila purchased three Romarm 7.62 rifles from Lone Wolfe Trading Company near Glendale, Ariz. According to the report, he also bought guns illegally in April and June of 2010.

Jan. 26, 2010: Operation Fast and Furious receives funding from the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF)

March 10, 2010: A memo from Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Lanny A. Breuer authorizes a wire tap application as part of Operation Fast and Furious. The memo on the authorization was sent to Paul M. O’Brien, director of the Office of Enforcement Operation for the Criminal Division and to Emory Hurley, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona and the lead prosecutor in the operation.

March 10, 2010: An internal e-mail from George T. Gillett Jr., assistant special agent in charge to supervisor Voth and others said that ATF Acting Director Melson and ATF Deputy Director Billy Hoover “are being briefed weekly on this investigation and the recent success with REDACTED so they are both keenly interested in case updates.”

March 11, 2010: An e-mail from Voth to Gillett, with the subject line “Director’s questions” said, “Here are anwers to what I understand the director’s questions to be. More detail can be provided upon request. I thought it best to start brief. 1.) IP Addresses for Pole Cameras: REDACTED User ID: REDACTED password: REDACTED This must be monitored from a stand-alone computer as ATF Network bandwidth does not permit continuous monitoring.” In a news release in June, Rep. Issa said, “With this information, Acting Director Melson was able to sit at his desk in Washington and himself watch a live feed of straw buyers entering the gun stores and purchasing dozens of AK-47 variants.”

March 12, 2010: David Voth, the Phoenix Group VII supervisor, sent an e-mail addressing the divide between field agents who wanted to halt the operation and the chain of command who supported the operation.

“Whether you care or not people of rank and authority at HQ are paying close attention to this case and they also believe we (Phoenix Group VII) are doing what they envisioned the Southwest Border Groups doing,” Voth’s e-mail said. “It may sound cheesy, but we are ‘The Tip of the ATF spear’ when it comes to Southwest Border Firearms Trafficking. We need to resolve our issues at this meeting. I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior. If you don’t think this is fun you’re in the wrong line of work--period.”

The Voth e-mail continued: “This is the pinnacle of U.S. law enforcement techniques. After this, the tool box is empty. Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers and you can get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day.”

April 2, 2010: David Voth, the Phoenix Group VII supervisor, sent an e-mail to a redacted recipient that says: “Our subjects purchased 359 firearms during the month of March alone, to include numerous Barrett .50 caliber riffles. I believe we are righteous in our plan to dismantle this entire organization and to rush in to arrest any one person without taking in to account the entire scope of the conspiracy would be ill advised to the overall good of the mission.”

April 12, 2010: An e-mail from Voth to Gillett says that the next day, the ATF Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations William McMahon will get a briefing on the operation.

Dec. 14, 2010: U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, 40, was murdered in Rio Rico, Ariz., by suspected operatives of a Mexican drug-smuggling organization. Police arrested four suspects in the murder.

Dec. 15, 2010: An e-mail exchange among ATF agents at 7:45 p.m. confirmed that the two of the weapons that Jaime Avila had purchased in January 2010 as part of Operation Fast and Furious were found at Terry’s murder scene. The names on the e-mail were redacted.

“The two firearms recovered by ATF this afternoon near Rio Rico, Arizona, in conjunction with the shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Terry were identified as ‘Suspect Guns’ in the Fast and Furious investigation [REDACTED],” the e-mail says. The e-mail stated the guns and serial numbers, and said: “I initiated an urgent firearms trace request on both of the firearms and then contacted the NTC to ensure the traces were conducted today.”

December-January 2010: “According to Acting Director Melson, he became aware of this startling possibility [that guns were being smuggled into Mexico with the awareness of the ATF] only after the [December] murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and the[ January] indictments of the straw purchasers, which we now know were substantially delayed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Main Justice,” says a July 5, 2011 letter from Sen. Grassley and Rep. Issa to Attorney General Holder.

Jan. 8, 2011: U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is shot while meeting with constituents in Tucson. ATF agents were initially worried she might have been shot by a gun sold through Operation Fast and Furious. This turned out not to be the case. However, Pete Forcelli, a group supervisor with the ATF Phoenix Field Division who had warned about potential dangers of the program, told congressional investigators that after Terry was murdered many agents were on edge. “And then there was a sense like every other time, even with Ms. Giffords’ shooting, there was a state of panic, like, oh, God, let’s hope this is not a weapon from that case.”

Jan. 19, 2011: Operation Fast and Furious results in the indictment of 20 straw purchasers, including Jaime Avila. That is the same number of straw purchasers that the ATF had identified as long as a year before this indictment. The Jan. 8, 2010 ATF briefing paper on the operation had said its goal was to prosecute “the 20 individual straw purchasers, the facilitators of the distribution cell centered here in Phoenix, the transportation cells taking firearms South.” The indictment focused on the straw purchasers failing to provide accurate information on ATF Form 4473, which a purchaser must complete truthfully when buying a gun. According to the congressional report, the ATF had known that most of the indicted straw purchasers were in fact straw purchasers before Operation Fast and Furious began.

Jan. 25, 2011: Phoenix Special Agent in Charge William Newell held a press conference announcing the indictment of the 20 people as a result of Operation Fast and Furious. When asked if agents purposefully allowed weapons to enter Mexico, Newell says, “Hell, no.”

Jan. 27, 2011: Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson that said: “Members of the Judiciary Committee have received numerous allegations that the ATF sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to suspected straw purchasers, who then allegedly transported these weapons throughout the southwestern border area and into Mexico. According to these allegations, one of these individuals purchased three assault rifles with cash in Glendale, Arizona on January 16, 2010. Two of the weapons were then allegedly used in a firefight on December 14, 2010 against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, killing CBP Agent Brian Terry.”

Grassley requested that the ATF brief his staff on the matter.

Jan. 31, 2011: Grassley wrote a second letter to Melson that says whistleblowers were being targeted in the agency. “This is exactly the wrong sort of reaction for the ATF. Rather than focusing on retaliating against whistleblowers, the ATF’s sole focus should be on findding and disclosing the truth as soon as possible.”

The Grassley letter continued, “As you may be aware, obstructing a Congressional investigation is a crime. Additionally, denying or interfering with employees’ rights to furnish information to Congress is also against the law. Federal officials who deny or interfere with employees’ rights to furnish information to Congress are not entitled to have their salaries paid by taxpayers’ dollars. Finally, ATF personnel have Constitutional rights to express their concerns to Congress under the First Amendment.”

Feb. 1, 2011: In a story headlined, “Claims tie ATF sting to guns in shootout,” The Arizona Republic reported on Grassley’s pending investigation and on the whistleblower’s allegations. Other media, such as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times reported on this in the following days.

Feb. 4, 2011: Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Grassley denying that the Justice Department knowingly “sanctioned” the sale of guns to people they believed were going to deliver them to Mexican drug cartels.

“At the outset, the allegation described in your January 27 letter--that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them to Mexico--is false,” Weich wrote. “ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”

Feb. 15, 2011: Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata is murdered in Mexico. The Associated Press later reported (on Feb. 28), based on an unnamed source, that the weapon used to kill Zapata “was shipped through Laredo with the possible knowledge of the ATF.” The story continued that “the feds were already investigating the suspects when the gun was sent to Mexico.” The matter was separate from Operation Fast and Furious, but was under the same umbrella as part of the larger Project Gunrunner.

Feb. 23, 2011: CBS Evening News airs its first piece on Operation Fast and Furious that includes interviews with ATF whistleblowers who say they warned supervisors of potential problems.

March 8, 2011: The Justice Department informed Sen. Grassley that the matter would be reviewed by the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General. In a letter to Grassley, Assistant Attorney General Weich wrote, “We appreciated your continuing concern about this matter. We have referred your letters to and the attached documents to the Department’s Office of Inspector General.”

March 10, 2011: At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) asked Holder about the matter.

“What is your view now on that particular program? And I know that you’ve asked for an IG study of it, but tell me if you think that that program should be continued. Is it the correct use of the Project Gunrunner subprogram, I guess? Because it--of course, it’s a great concern.”

Holder responded, “Well, first, I’d say that, you know, the mission of ATF and the mission to which they are dedicated is to stop the flow of guns into Mexico and to people who shouldn’t have guns here in the United States. And that is the focus of ATF, and it is why ATF agents serve bravely in Mexico and in this country, and I think do a great job. It is true that there have been concerns expressed by ATF agents about the way in which this operation was conducted and I took those allegations, those concerns, very seriously, and asked the inspector general to try to get to the bottom of it. An investigation, an inquiry, is now under way.

“I've also made clear to people in the department that letting guns walk--I guess that's the term that the people use--that letting guns walk is not something that is acceptable. Guns are different than drug cases or cases where we’re trying to follow where money goes. We cannot have a situation where guns are allowed to walk, and I've made that clear to the United States attorneys as well as the agents in charge in the various ATF offices.”

March 11, 2011: The Contra Costa Times and other news organizations reported that the Mexican attorney general’s office, known as the PGR, issued a statement that Mexican authorities were aware of the U.S. anti-gun operation that allowed smugglers to buy weapons under watch of U.S. agents, but that the Mexican government “had no knowledge of the existence of an operation that might include the transgression or controlled trafficking of arms to Mexican territory.” The statement continued, “The government of Mexico has not given nor will it give its authorization, tacit or express, under any circumstance, for that to occur.”

March 22, 2011: President Barack Obama was asked about Operation Fast and Furious on Univision, a Spanish language network.

“Well, first of all, I did not authorize it,” Obama told Univision. “Eric Holder, the attorney general, did not authorize it. There may be a situation here in which a serious mistake was made. If that’s the case, then we’ll find-- find out and we’ll hold somebody accountable.”

March 2011: ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson says “he told the Office of Deputy Attorney General at the end of March that the Department needed to reexamine how it was responding to the request for information from Congress,” according to a July 5 letter from Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassley to Attorney General Holder.

May 3, 2011: Holder testified to the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Holder had an exchange about Operation Fast and Furious.  Under questioning from Issa, Holder said he was not sure of the exact date he first heard of the operation, but said it was “probably … over the last few weeks.” Holder also could not say who authorized the operation.

Issa asked: “When did you first know about the program officially, I believe, called Fast and Furious? To the best of your knowledge, what date?”

Holder answered: “I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks.”

Issa followed: “Now that you've been briefed on it, the president has said on March 22 that you didn't authorize it. Did your deputy attorney general, James Cole, authorize it?”

Holder answered: “I’m sorry. That would be?”

Issa repeated: “The deputy attorney general, James Cole.”

Holder again acted puzzled: “Did he -- I didn't hear. Did he?”

Issa completed the question: “Did the deputy attorney general authorize it?”

Holder finally gave a less than clear answer: “My guess would be no. Mr. Cole, I don't think, was in the—I--I think--I don't think he was in the department at the time that operation started.”

Issa went on to ask: “How about the head of the Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer?”

Holder answered, “I'm not sure.”

Issa followed; “Did he authorize it?”

Holder responded: “I’m not sure whether Mr. Breuer authorized it. I mean, you have to understand the way in which the department operates. Although there are--there are operations, this one has become--has gotten a great deal of publicity.”

Issa later asked: “Do you stand by this program? In other words--and it's not a hypothetical, really--if you knew this program, knew about this program 90 days ago, 180 days ago, would you have allowed it to continue? And if not, then what are you going to do about the people who did know and allowed it to continue?”

Holder answered: “Well, what I have told people at the Department of Justice is that under no circumstances in any case that any investigation that we bring should guns be allowed to be distributed in an uncontrolled manner.”

Issa followed: “So that would be cognizant with the March 9th letter from Deputy Attorney General James Cole in which he says that we should not design or conduct undercover operations which include guns crossing the border. If we have knowledge that guns are about to cross the border, we must take immediate action to stop the firearms from crossing the border, and so on. That's--that's your policy today.”

Holder says: “That has--that is our policy. That has totally been the policy that I tried to impose.”

Issa then asked: “And isn't Fast and Furious inconsistent with that policy?”

Holder answered: “Well, that's one of the questions that we’ll have to see whether or not Fast and Furious was conducted in a way that’s consistent with what Jim wrote there, what I have said today. And that's what the inspector general is, in fact, looking at.”

June 16, 2011: Issa told he believes Holder knew about the operation earlier than he testified.

“We believe he [Holder] was aware of it much earlier than he says in his testimony and questioning before the Judiciary Committee,” Issa said. Issa later added: “Are we confident that Eric Holder knew it much earlier? No. Did he know it earlier than he testified? Absolutely.”

June 15, 2011: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in conjunction with the staff of Sen. Grassley, released a report on Operation Fast and Furious. On that day, the House oversight committee held a hearing on the matter. Four ATF agents testified about their opposition to the operation.

At the hearing, Chairman Issa questioned Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich about the letter he sent to Sen. Grassley on Feb. 4 in which Weich said it was “false” that the Justice Department had “knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them to Mexico.”

“You made a statement in that letter that you signed on the 4th that said: ‘ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico,” said Issa. “Who prepared that line in your letter? You signed it, who prepared it? Was it you?”

“These letters are the product of the Justice Department,” Weich responded.

“So your signature on that letter doesn't mean that you know it to be true, is that correct?” asked Issa.

“I take ultimate responsibility,” said Weich.

“Okay,” said Issa. “Isn't that statement false now with what you know?”

“Obviously, there have been allegations that call into serious question that particular sentence,” said Weich.

“Weren't there documents that now have been provided and made public that let you know that that statement was false?” asked Issa.

“And that's why you're investigating and that's why we're investigating,” said Weich.

Replied Issa: “I just take your agreement that those documents indicate that that statement that you signed that someone prepared for your signature were false?

“Congressman, I am not prepared to say that at this time,” said Weich. “Everything that we say is true to the best of our knowledge at the time we say it. As more facts come out, obviously our understanding of the situation is enhanced.”

June 27, 2011: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney could not provide the answer when asked him for the exact date when President Obama first learned about Operation Fast and Furious. Carney responded, “I’ll have to get back to you. I don’t have an exact date for you.” Carney also did not comment on whether the president believed Acting ATF Director Melson should resign from his position.

June 29, 2011: A reporter asked President Obama about the matter at a White House news conference. Obama responded, “As you know, my attorney general has made clear he certainly would not have ordered gun running to pass through into Mexico. The investigation is still pending. I’m not going to comment on the current investigation. I’ve made very clear my views that that would not be an appropriate step by the ATF, and we’ve got to find out how that happened. As soon as the investigation is complete, appropriate action will be taken.”

July 4, 2011: Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson and speaks to congressional investigators from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Melson met with investigators with his personal attorney present—not Justice Department attorneys.

July 5, 2011: Chairman Issa and Sen. Grassley wrote a letter to Attorney General Holder about Melson’s testimony. The letter says Melson “claimed that ATF's senior leadership would have preferred to be more cooperative with our inquiry much earlier in the process. However, he said that Justice Department officials directed them not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress. The result is that Congress only got the parts of the story that the (Justice) Department wanted us to hear. If his account is accurate, then ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DOJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand. That approach distorted the truth and obstructed our investigation. The Department's inability or unwillingness to be more forthcoming served to conceal critical information that we are now learning about the involvement of other agencies, including the DEA and the FBI.”

The Issa-Grassley letter to Holder further says that contrary to earlier denials by the Justice Department, Melson acknowledged that ATF agents had in fact witnessed transfers of weapons from straw purchasers to third parties without following the guns any further. Melson also said that ATF agents carrying out Operation Fast and Furious had been placed under the direction of the Arizona U.S. Attorney's office.

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