Magazine | July 18, 2011, Issue

What’s Step 2?

The illogic of Operation Fast and Furious

Conservatives know that gun control is a futile endeavor. But even we gun nuts typically support some basic measures to keep weapons out of the wrong hands — for example, laws that forbid felons to own guns, laws that require firearms dealers to perform instant background checks on buyers, and laws against “straw purchasing,” that is, buying a gun legally and then selling it to someone who’s not allowed to have it.

Someone such as, say, a trafficker who supplies a Mexican drug cartel.

And yet the Obama administration’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) intentionally allowed straw purchases at Arizona gun shops near the Mexican border. This project, now defunct, was called Operation Fast and Furious.

It was a sting operation of sorts, and while it’s not yet clear who designed it, the ATF’s plan gives us some hints about its creator:

Step 1: Let Mexican cartels buy American guns and use them in crimes.

Step 2: ?

Step 3: Bring down the cartels!

Yes, all signs point to the Underpants Gnomes, the cartoon crime syndicate from South Park whose business plan is as follows:

Phase 1: Collect underpants.

Phase 2: ?

Phase 3: Profit!

This is perhaps too flippant a way of discussing a government operation that supplied thousands of firearms to violent criminals, including two guns that were found at the scene of a shootout that killed a Border Patrol agent. But based on what we know of Fast and Furious, it doesn’t shortchange the logic behind the program one bit.

There is no question that the Mexican drug trade has grown incredibly bloody in recent years, and there is no question that some of the guns the cartels use come from the U.S. To combat this trend, the ATF works with federally licensed gun dealers, who report suspected straw purchasers. Typically, the ATF questions the suspects, interdicts the weapons, and if possible makes arrests. Sometimes this happens right at the gun store, while other times, ATF agents let straw purchasers lead them to stash houses or third-party buyers — but, in keeping with their training, the agents always make sure not to let the guns escape entirely.

That’s not what happened under Fast and Furious. Rather, dealers were instructed to sell guns to straw purchasers, and the ATF recorded the serial numbers in its Suspect Gun Database. Often, the ATF or local law-enforcement officers followed the buyers to see where they went. But at that point, they just let the guns “walk.” Perhaps 2,000 firearms — including AK-47 variants and .50-caliber sniper rifles — escaped the ATF’s watchful eye in this way.

There were no tracking devices in the guns, so there was no way the weapons would lead the ATF to a cartel stronghold. Instead, the ATF simply waited until the guns turned up in the hands of criminals, hoping that the Mexican government or local U.S. law enforcement would submit them to the bureau for tracing — completing the circle back to the gun dealer who’d cooperated with the ATF and the straw purchaser the ATF let walk away. Even then, the ATF continued to let the straw purchasers buy guns.

#page#Note that the recovery of these extra guns adds nothing to existing law-enforcement tools. There are two crimes being committed here, the straw purchase and the eventual crime by the cartel, and Fast and Furious helps solve neither. The ATF can go after straw purchasers without letting the guns out of its surveillance, and if law enforcement finds a gun that was used in a crime and appears to have been supplied by an American trafficking group, the ATF can trace the serial number to a specific dealer and buyer regardless of whether it’s in the Suspect Gun Database. The only difference Fast and Furious made was that more American guns were found at crime scenes, because the American government put them there.

The best guess as to what the ATF was thinking — the best candidate for Step 2 — is that the bureau “hoped to establish a nexus between the local straw buyers in Arizona and the Mexico-based [drug cartels],” according to a congressional report prepared for Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa). Of course, the ATF and the Mexican government were already trying to find this nexus using crime guns that had escaped ATF surveillance. Apparently the bureau figured that 2,000 additional data points would somehow fill in the timeline between the straw purchases and the crimes, facilitating arrests of everyone involved — even though this plan provided no information about where the guns had traveled during that time. The ATF was confident enough in its scheme to funnel thousands of guns to violent drug gangs just for the opportunity to document where they ended up.

If this was indeed the ATF’s thinking, it is bizarre — and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t destroy any cartels. The only criminals arrested through the program were about 20 straw purchasers, who face up to ten years in prison. And the ATF knew most of these folks were straw purchasers before Fast and Furious even started.

The program began to unwind following the Border Patrol shootout mentioned above, which took the life of Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. Then, ATF whistleblowers began coming forward. The media were slow to take notice, but CBS News did a groundbreaking report, and some other outlets followed. Most recently, CBS reported that “‘walked’ guns have been linked to the terrorist torture and murder of the brother of a Mexican state attorney general last fall.”

Eventually, Issa and Grassley convened hearings, and they are releasing a series of reports about the project. The first of these contains some truly disturbing information. ATF agents and gun-store owners complained and warned of disastrous consequences, to no avail. One whistleblower described a supervisor as “jovial, if not, not giddy . . . that, hey, 20 of our guns were recovered with 350 pounds of dope in Mexico last night. And it was exciting. To them it proved the nexus to the drug cartels. It validated that . . . we were really working the cartel case here.” By the time of the Terry murder, the man who had bought the guns used in the shootout had been an ATF suspect for a year, and another gun he’d purchased had been recovered by the Border Patrol — and yet he had not been arrested.

#page#Here’s how one whistleblower, Agent John Dodson, expressed his frustration:

Every day being out here, watching a guy go into the same gun store buying another 15 or 20 AK-47s or variants . . . five or ten Draco pistols or FN Five-seveNs . . . [He doesn’t] have a job, and he’s walking in here spending $27,000 for three Barrett .50 calibers. . . . [He] walks in with his little bag going in there to buy it, and you are sitting there every day and you can’t do anything.

One thing Issa and Grassley have not been able to ascertain is who bears final responsibility. President Obama claims that neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder knew of the program, and Issa released e-mails proving that ATF acting director Kenneth Melson did know — but between those two ends of the Justice Department hierarchy, little evidence exists. The department “continues to deny that Operation Fast and Furious was ill-conceived and had deadly consequences.” At a press conference in January 2011, when asked whether the ATF had let guns “walk,” Bill Newell, of the ATF’s Phoenix field office, responded, “Hell no!”

The question of who approved Fast and Furious is especially pertinent in light of a talking point that President Obama and other gun controllers began trotting out in 2009: the claim that 90 percent of crime guns recovered in Mexico come from the U.S. The number was bunk; it was derived not from all crime guns recovered in Mexico, but rather from crime guns submitted to the ATF for tracing. Mexican authorities submit only guns they suspect are American, and most of the time, their suspicions are correct. (This statistical trick hasn’t died; in mid-June, the Wall Street Journal used new ATF data to claim that “American-Sourced Weapons Account for 70% of Seized Firearms in Mexico.”) The real number is perhaps 17 percent — making American guns a contributor to cartel violence, but not the primary enabler of it.

But if President Obama is so concerned about American guns’ finding their way into the cartels’ hands, why was his ATF allowing precisely that to happen — apparently without informing Obama, his attorney general, or the Mexican government? It is outlandish to suggest, as some on the right have, that the administration deliberately fueled Mexican violence with American guns to bolster the case for gun control in the U.S. Not only does this scenario envision our government’s acting as a comic-book supervillain, it fails to recognize that the gun-control movement is perfectly happy to make up facts rather than create real ones — as evidenced by the widespread use of the 90 percent statistic to begin with. But the government owes Issa and Grassley, not to mention the American people and the family of Agent Terry, an answer to this question.

It also owes us an explanation of who designed this plan, who approved it, and how far up the chain of command knowledge of the program went. And while Obama and his subordinates are at it, they might answer another question as well: What’s Step 2?

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