Politics & Policy

Fast and Furious: A Timeline

U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry
What led up to the House vote on whether to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress.


  • October 26. Department of Justice officials meet to discuss the problem of mounting violence in Mexico. They decide to change strategy, aiming to eliminate gun-trafficking pipelines. There is no mention of “gunwalking” during the meeting.

  • November. The operation is launched. It is designed and run by the ATF Phoenix field office.

  • 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.


  • January. 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.

  • March. Some ATF agents are concerned that weapons distributed through gunwalking might be used for crimes in Mexico or even the United States.

  • 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.

  • December 14. U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry is 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 continues another six weeks.

  • Soon after Terry’s death, ATF agents speak with Senator Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to seek his help in stopping the operation.


  • January 25. U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke announces indictments along with the first public details of the case, ending Operation Fast and Furious. 

  • January 27. Grassley begins his inquiry by sending a request for information to ATF director Kenneth Melson.

  • February 4. 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.”

  • February. Attorney General Eric Holder asks the inspector general of the Department of Justice to begin an investigation of Fast and Furious.

  • March 31. Representative Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, subpoenaes the Fast and Furious documents. He and Grassley team up.

  • June 15. Issa holds a congressional hearing, bringing together Weich, whistleblowers, and relatives of Terry.

  • July 4. ATF director Melson secretly meets with Issa and Grassley, explaining that the priority at the Department of Justice appears to be the protection of senior officials from political fallout.

  • August. Three important Fast and Furious supervisors are transferred to new management positions at ATF headquarters in Washington. U.S. attorney Burke is questioned by congressional investigators.

  • Late August. It is announced that ATF director Melson has been reassigned to a new post in the Justice Department, a move widely seen as punishment for his cooperation with Congress. U.S. attorney Burke announces his resignation.

  • October. Documents surface showing that Holder received briefings on Fast and Furious as early as July 2010. In May 2011, at a congressional hearing, he said he had known specifically about the gunwalking tactics for only a few weeks.  

  • November 8. In congressional testimony, Holder admits for the first time that gunwalking was used in Fast and Furious.

  • December. Documents reveal 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. Issa threatens Holder with a committee vote on contempt.


  • June 20. President Obama asserts executive privilege over the documents in question

  • Later that day, the House Committee voted to recommend that Holder be held in contempt of Congress.  

NRO Staff — Members of the National Review Online editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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