Operation Fast and Furious

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About

"Operation Fast and Furious", or just "Fast & Furious" (F&F), was the name of an investigation run by federal ATF agents and federal prosecutors in Arizona whose purpose was to stop gun traffickers in Arizona, the state ranked by the gun-control advocacy group Legal Community Against Violence as having the nation's "weakest gun violence prevention laws."

It is significant to note that although F&F was very similar to a smaller operation under the Bush administration, Operation Wide Receiver (OWR), under OWR there had been a formal ATF contract with the cooperating gun dealer and efforts were made to involve the ATF Mexico City Office (MCO) and Mexican law enforcement. Under F&F, at the insistence of Bill Newell, special agent in charge of ATF's Phoenix field division, the cooperating gun dealers did not have contracts with ATF, and MCO and Mexican police were left in the dark (according to the /Horowitz report).

The operation appears to have become a scandal when agent Brian Terry was killed on 2010-12-14 in an attack by Mexican bandits on an elite US Border Patrol unit, leaving behind two semiautomatic rifles whose serial numbers indicated that they had been purchased 11 months earlier at a Phoenix-area gun store by a F&F suspect. It was subsequently discovered that F&F operations had allowed thousands of guns to be sold to operatives of Mexican drug gangs who then smuggled them across the border for use in the drug war.

Query

It's not clear whether the term "gun walking" (or "gunwalking") always implies a deliberate act.

Stipulations

  • Both sides agree that suspected straw purchasers under surveillance by the ATF repeatedly bought guns that eventually fell into criminal hands.
    • The disagreement is whether this was a deliberate strategy; five law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious told Fortune magazine that the ATF had no such tactic. They insist they never purposefully allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Just the opposite: They say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.
      • Conversely, the /Horowitz report found that "it was not the legal view that prevented ATF or U.S. prosecutors from interdicting the guns in Fast and Furious, but a tactical and strategic decision to let the guns walk in order to pursue higher-ups in the gun-running, drug-smuggling and money laundering operation they were investigating."3

Allegations

A number of allegations have been made about the program and the events associated with it.. Unfortunately, the attackers have largely been more motivated by partisan politics than by any desire to find the truth, and it is often difficult to sort out the valid criticisms from the absurd.

Allegations against F&F include the following:

  • gun-walking: that the idea was to deliberately allow guns to fall into the hands of criminals in order to help to track down drug cartel leaders as part of the US government's pointless war on drugs
  • deliberate bungle: that the operation was deliberately mishandled by the administration in order to drum up support for stiffer gun control laws
  • informants: the ATF used informants to trigger strawman purchases
  • dealer coercion: the ATF coerced dealers into facilitating the illegal purchases (with threats of losing their licenses if they balked)
  • guns to criminals: the ATF allowed some 2000 firearms to fall into the hands of the drug cartels.
  • coverup: the administration and/or the ATF tried to cover up the facts
    • This is largely supported by the "/take them down" allegation -- but there has been no evidence provided to support this allegation, and the site where information might have been provided has itself been "taken down".

Relevant Facts

  • Due to Republican obstruction, the ATF has been without a full-time director.
  • Lobbying against any kind of gun control efforts have hobbled efforts to track gun trafficking:
    • No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking within the U.S., so agents must build cases against traffickers using a patchwork of often toothless laws.
    • The bill providing the ATF with funding explicitly prohibits it from creating an electronic database of gun sales, due largely to lobbying by the NRA.

Conclusions

  • Given Arizona's lax gun laws and its proximity to Mexico where gun sales are illegal, it is almost inevitable that Mexican gangs would look to Arizona for guns, and that stopping them would be an almost impossible task -- and that anyone who tried would have powerful forces aligned against them on both sides of the border.
  • The gun walking hypothesis seems unlikely at best; we are not aware of any evidence supporting it, and at least some evidence against it.
  • It is not clear if the informants accusation suggests that the ATF did anything wrong.
  • We have not yet seen the arguments supporting the dealer coercion hypothesis.
  • The deliberate bungle hypothesis is absurd on the face of it, and also has no supporting evidence.
  • The guns to criminals hypothesis has been stipulated as true by the ATF -- but it should be noted that this is a drop in the bucket: the Mexican government has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the US into Mexico.
  • F&F was part of the war on drugs, an initiative with far more support among Republicans than Democrats.

If there is a scandal here, it is that Republicans have succeeded in tarring the Obama administration with the disastrous consequences of their own actions and policies.

History

In 2009, the ATF promoted Dave Voth "to lead Phoenix Group VII, one of seven new ATF groups along the Southwest border tasked with stopping guns from being trafficked into Mexico's vicious drug war. [...] By June 2010 the agents had sent the U.S. Attorney's office a list of 31 suspects they wanted to arrest, with 46 pages outlining their illegal acts. But for the next seven months prosecutors did not indict a single suspect." 2012-06-27-F

The program first came under heavy fire "after a U.S. border agent, Brian Terry, was killed [on 2010-12-14] and two guns that ATF and prosecutors had allowed to "walk" as part of Fast and Furious turned up at the scene of the crime."3

The operation may have initially come to light when Fox News correspondent William La Jeunesse first advanced the ludicrous theory that F&F had been deliberately designed to go badly in order to stir up sentiment for tighter gun control laws.2011-06-15-MM This theory has since been repeated by Ann Coulter and others, despite the lack of any evidence.


Michelle Malkin appeared on Fox & Friends on 2012-06-21 to criticize the program, but the substance of her argument (stripped of emotional rhetoric) is so concise as to be undetectable. She also asserted that Obama was "at the center of it", and Democrats don't care about Brian Terry.

The US Inspector General's office issued a report finding considerable fault with the administration, but no evidence that it was deliberately fumbled. The Heritage Foundation issued its own statement on the report, and did not seem to find it lacking.

Timeline

date link/title/description org position
2005 Project Gunrunner [W] is begun as a pilot project in Laredo, Texas. event
2006

Southwest Border Initiative, which seeks to reduce cross-border drug and firearms trafficking and the high level of violence associated with these activities on both sides of the border.

event
2006 Operation Wide Receiver begins as part of Project Gunrunner - Tucson gun dealer Mike Detty, under supervision by the ATF, sells about 450 guns to straw buyers; the majority of these guns were eventually lost as they moved into Mexico, despite assurance from ATF "that Mexican officials would be conducting surveillance or interdictions when guns got to the other side of the border". event
2007 Operation Wide Receiver ends; no arrests or indictments were made. event
2009 The Obama DOJ reviews Wide Receiver and finds that guns had been allowed into the hands of suspected gun traffickers. event
2009-10-26 US strategy for fighting Mexican drug cartels is the subject of a teleconference at the DoJ. They decided on a strategy to identify and eliminate entire arms trafficking networks rather than low-level buyers. Gunwalking is apparently not discussed. event
2009-10-31 Operation Fast and Furious begins (although it is not yet called by this name) when a local gun store reported to the Phoenix ATF that four individuals had purchased multiple AK47 style rifles. event
2010 The Obama DOJ begins indictments regarding gunwalking under Wide Receiver. By October 4, 2011, nine people had been charged with making false statements in acquisition of firearms and illicit transfer, shipment or delivery of firearms. By November, charges against one defendant had been dropped; five of them had pled guilty, and one had been sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Two of them remained fugitives event
2010-07-05 Weekly Report for July 5 through July 9 to Eric Holder, mentioning F&F by name US DoJ via CBS memo
2010-12-14 US border agent Brian Terry is killed event
2011-03-03 Agent: I was ordered to let U.S. guns into Mexico interview with Agent John Dodson
2011-03-31 ATF is subpoenaed (by the COGR?) /Issa memo event
2011-06-13 Fox News correspondent William La Jeunesse advances theory that F&F "was allowed to happen to justify tougher gun laws in the U.S." Fox News gun control theory
2011-06-15 Fox Hypes Bogus Theory That ATF Operation Meant To Lay Groundwork For Stricter Gun Laws MediaMatters debunking
2011-06-29 a reporter asks the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the Dodson documents, later alleged to be a "leak" from Dennis Burke /Horowitz report event
2011-08-11 Inspector General Horowitz initiates an investigation into the Dodson documents /Horowitz report event
2011-08-17 ATF denies it promoted Fast and Furious supervisors LA Times reporting
2011-08-30 CNN reporting
2011-08-31 U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke resigns azcentral.com reporting (Dennis Burke)
2011-10-03 New documents show Attorney General Eric Holder was briefed in July 2010 CBS allegation: Eric Holder lied
2011-12-08 Lawmakers: Heads should roll over gun-walking CBS criticism
2012-02-10 NRA's LaPierre Returns To Fox To Promote Fast And Furious Conspiracy MediaMatters debunking
2012-04-19 Fast And Fallacious: Pavlich's Book On ATF Operation Filled With Falsehoods MediaMatters debunking
2012-04-23 Fast And Spurious: Katie Pavlich's ATF Conspiracy MediaMatters debunking
2012-05-03 Update on Operation Fast and Furious: /Issa memo makes the "/take them down" allegation Darrell Issa official
2012-05-10 On Fox, Mark Sanford Repeats Paranoid ATF Gun-Control Conspiracy MediaMatters debunking
2012-05-17 Issa Report Again Debunks Right-Wing Media's Fast And Furious Conspiracy Theory: /Issa memo MediaMatters debunking
2012-06-21 Operation Fast and Furious: All your questions answered MSNBC reporting
2012-06-21 Michelle Malkin: 'Obama Is At The Center' Of The Fast And Furious Scandal Michelle Malkin criticism: Obama "at the center"
2012-06-25 Fast and Furious documents: What do they show? Fox News analysis
2012-06-27 The truth about the Fast and Furious scandal: "A Fortune investigation reveals that the ATF never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. How the world came to believe just the opposite is a tale of rivalry, murder, and political bloodlust." CNN / Fortune debunking
2012-06-29 letter from Darrell Issa and Chuck Grassley to Michael Horowitz repeating the "/take them down" allegation Chuck Grassley / Darrell Issa allegation
2012-07-11 Fast and Furious Is Not a D.C. Law Firm Ann Coulter gun control theory
2012-09-19 /Horowitz report released US Inspector General investigation: criticism
2012-09-20 Fast and Furious Report Destroys Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories TIME debunking
2012-09-20 Fast And Furious: Michael Horowitz, Justice Dept. Inspector General, Testifying Before House Committee re /Horowitz report HuffPo reporting
2012-09-21 President Obama Falsely Claims Fast and Furious Program "Begun Under the Previous Administration" ABC criticism: false claim
2012-09-21 5 Ways Fast & Furious Tarnishes Eric Holder's Justice Department Heritage Foundation criticism: lying under oath, etc.
2013-05-20 Fast and Furious: U.S. Attorney sought to discredit agent by leaking documents Washington Times /take them down

Footnotes

2011-06-15-MM. Fox Hypes Bogus Theory That ATF Operation Meant To Lay Groundwork For Stricter Gun Laws
1. 2012-06-21 Michelle Malkin: 'Obama Is At The Center' Of The Fast And Furious Scandal
2. 2012-07-11 Fast and Furious Is Not a D.C. Law Firm
3. 2012-09-20 Fast and Furious Report Destroys Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories
2012-06-27-F. The truth about the Fast and Furious scandal "A Fortune investigation reveals that the ATF never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. How the world came to believe just the opposite is a tale of rivalry, murder, and political bloodlust."

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