Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif), chairman of the U.S. House of Representative’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee, got his hearing. Representative Issa has been trying to find out why the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) told gun-store owners to sell thousands of semi-automatic firearms to straw purchasers (those who buy guns for someone who can’t do so legally) — and then just watched as the guns went across the border, into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
As Representative Issa called his hearing into session yesterday, congressional staffers handed out e-mails showing that the ATF’s acting director, Kenneth Melson, and acting deputy director, Bill Hoover, were both involved in overseeing “Operation Fast and Furious.” One e-mail from George T. Gillett, the assistant special agent in charge of the ATF’s Phoenix office, to David Voth, an ATF supervisor, on March 10, 2010 — about nine months before the story broke — includes this sentence: “Not sure if you know, but Mr. Nelson and Mr. Hoover are being briefed weekly on this investigation.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R., Iowa) testified that “the president said he didn’t authorize it and that the attorney general didn’t authorize [Fast and Furious]. They have both admitted that a ‘serious mistake’ may have been made. There are a lot of questions, and a lot of investigating to do. But one thing has become clear already: This was no mistake. It was a conscious decision by senior officials. It was written down. It was briefed up to Washington, D.C.”
Just how high up the chain the knowledge and approval of this now-defunct program goes, we don’t yet know, but we do know that Fast and Furious — an arm of the ATF’s five-year-old Gunrunner program — was started in 2009 and came to light in December 2010. That was when drug runners killed U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in a firefight in a remote canyon near Nogales, Ariz. Two of the rifles used in the battle had been “allowed” to be purchased through Fast and Furious.
ATF agents–turned–whistleblowers John Dodson and Olindo James Casa testified that they begged to seize the firearms, which included .50-caliber sniper rifles, once the straw purchasers handed them off. “My supervisors directed me and my colleagues not to make any stop or arrest, but rather to keep the straw purchaser under surveillance while allowing the guns to walk,” he said.
Casa also said that “on several occasions, I personally requested to interdict or seize firearms, but I was always ordered to stand down and not to seize the firearms.”
#more#So the guns were just allowed to slip across the border. All the ATF has is the firearms’ serial numbers. They weren’t even working with Mexican authorities. As a result, Agent Dodson said, “We knew the next time we’d see the guns would be at crime scenes. And not [the scene of] the first crime these guns were used in, but at the last.”
When asked how he thought sending guns into Mexico could lead to busts of drug cartels, Agent Dodson said, “I have never heard an explanation from anyone involved in Operation Fast and Furious that I believe would justify what we did.”
Supervisory Special Agent Peter J. Forcelli is another ATF whistleblower. He testified that “the gun-store owners were our friends. We told them to sell the guns to the straw purchasers. This has harmed our reputation with the gun-store owners.”
After the story went public last December, the U.S. Justice Department jumped for cover behind its own internal investigation. Because answers haven’t been forthcoming, 31 Democratic congressmen sent a letter to Pres. Barack Obama asking him to cooperate. Meanwhile, Representative Issa is exploring what steps the committee could take to use its subpoena power to force high-ranking Obama-administration officials to testify before Congress.
During the hearing yesterday, Representative Issa and other members of the committee stressed that this isn’t a partisan political investigation. Representative Issa did, however, ask the ATF whistleblowers if they thought Fast and Furious was created for political reasons. None of the officers testifying were sure why it was started.
Late in the hearing, Josephine Terry — the mother of Brian Terry — was asked if there is anything she would like to say to whoever approved Operation Fast and Furious. After taking a moment to regain her composure, she said, “I don’t know what I would say to them, but I would like to know what they would say to me.”
— Frank Miniter’s next book, out June 28, is Saving the Bill of Rights.