That’s the rather startling finding of a Fortune investigation. The basic thrust is that for the most part, the ATF didn’t deliberately allow criminals to buy guns; instead, agents weren’t able to interdict weapons and make arrests because prosecutors told them they lacked probable cause. The only actual incident of gunwalking the investigation turned up, apparently, was allegedly the brainchild of John Dodson, one of the whistleblowers who now says he resisted the tactic. This use of the tactic was approved by an ATF supervisor, but it was not part of Fast and Furious.
All this is backed up by six months’ worth of reporting and numerous quotes from various sources, though many important figures were not available for comment. The investigation does confirm some comments that a source of mine made — it’s very, very difficult to prosecute people who buy guns with the intention of handing them off to someone else, and sometimes agents simply aren’t able to stop actions that are obviously illegal. It’s hard to explain away several key pieces of evidence that this was not the full extent of the problem with Fast and Furious, though.
For starters, several ATF officers, including Dodson, have come forward saying that they were told to let guns go when they could have interdicted them. (Fortune presents this as the result of grudges among ATF staff.) Also, while the Justice Department denied in February of last year that “gunwalking” had happened in Fast and Furious, it retracted the claim in December — it’s hard to imagine why they’d concede something like this if it isn’t true, especially when the administration is expending so much effort to fight the congressional Fast and Furious investigation in other ways. (Fortune says the administration is trying to avoid a fight over guns in the run-up to an election.) Further, there is an e-mail exchange between Justice officials about Fast and Furious containing the lines “It’s a tricky case given the number of guns that have walked” and “It’s not going to be any big surprise that a bunch of US guns are being used in MX, so I’m not sure how much grief we get for ‘guns walking.’” While the wiretap applications from Fast and Furious are not public, those involved in the congressional investigation say that they, too, discuss “reckless tactics.”
And gun dealers who cooperated with the ATF report a shift in policy that coincided with Fast and Furious — from stopping sales and questioning customers, to telling store owners to just go ahead and sell the guns. While Fortune reports that the ATF had no chance to interdict the guns that might have killed Border Patrol agent Brian Terry — the shop that sold the guns informed the ATF that the transaction was suspicious, but it was a holiday weekend and the fax wasn’t seen for days — the gun store’s owner has said he was told in advance to go ahead and sell guns to people he normally wouldn’t. The entire Fortune piece seems to neglect the distinctions between probable cause for an arrest, the act of at least questioning people who are trying to buy guns illegally, and the ATF’s advice to store owners that they refuse to make any sale that they “doubt” is legal. A big part of Fast and Furious is that store owners were told to make illegal sales when the ATF couldn’t follow up on them or chose not to.
The Fortune investigation dug up a treasure trove of new information, and presents and entirely different side of the story. But it’s far from the last word on Fast and Furious.
UPDATE: A spokesman for the House Oversight Committee sends along this response to the story:
Fortune’s story is a fantasy made up almost entirely from the accounts of individuals involved in the reckless tactics that took place in Operation Fast and Furious. It contains factual errors — including the false statement that Chairman Issa has called for Attorney General Holder’s resignation — and multiple distortions. It also hides critical information from readers — including a report in the Wall Street Journal — indicating that its primary sources may be facing criminal charges. Congressional staff gave Fortune Magazine numerous examples of false statements made by the story’s primary source and the magazine did not dispute this information. It did not, however, explain this material to its readers. The one point of agreement the Committee has with this story is its emphasis on the role Justice Department prosecutors, not just ATF agents, played in guns being transferred to drug cartels in Mexico. The allegations made in the story have been examined and rejected by congressional Republicans, Democrats, and the Justice Department.