NBC News and news services
updated 6/15/2011 7:06:04 PM ET 2011-06-15T23:06:04

Three federal firearms investigators told Congress on Wednesday that they were repeatedly ordered to step aside while gun buyers in Arizona walked away with AK-47s and other high-powered weaponry headed for Mexican drug cartels in a risky U.S. law enforcement operation that went out of control.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California said leaders of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were fully aware of the details of Operation Fast and Furious, which was designed to track small-time gun buyers to major weapons traffickers along the Southwest border.

At a hearing before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said hundreds of weapons destined for cartels in Mexico were bought in Arizona gun shops. One agent, John Dodson, who took his complaints to Grassley's office, estimated that 1,800 guns in Fast and Furious were unaccounted for, and about two-thirds are probably in Mexico.

Another of the three investigators, Peter Forcelli, said that "based upon my conversations with agents who assisted in this case, surveillance on individuals who had acquired weapons was often terminated far from the Mexican border." Forcelli said that while case agents believed that weapons were destined for Mexico, "the potential exists that many were sent with cartel drugs to other points within the United States."

"I can't tell you the why" the surveillances were called off, Dodson testified. "Hopefully ... this committee can find out." But the committee did not ask that question of any of the nonagent witnesses Wednesday.

The operation was designed to respond to criticism that the agency had focused on small-time gun arrests while major traffickers eluded prosecution.

As recently as last November, Justice's inspector general criticized ATF for focusing "largely on inspections of gun dealers and investigations of straw purchasers, rather than on higher-level traffickers, smugglers and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns." The IG said some ATF managers discourage agents from conducting complex conspiracy investigations that target high-level traffickers.

"Federal prosecutors told us that directing the efforts ... toward building larger, multidefendant conspiracy cases would better disrupt trafficking organizations," the IG said

Operation Fast and Furious came to light after two assault rifles purchased by a now-indicted small-time buyer under scrutiny in the operation turned up at the scene of a shootout in Arizona where Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed.

Story: Firearms from U.S. being used in Mexico drug violence

"We ask that if a government official made a wrong decision that they admit their error and take responsibility for his or her actions," Robert Heyer, the slain agent's cousin, told the committee. "We hope that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is forthcoming with all information" Congress is seeking.

ATF officials in Arizona were so concerned about the hundreds of guns they allowed to slip into Mexico that when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January, they hoped her shooting didn't involve one of those firearms.

Issa berated Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, because the Justice Department, the ATF's parent agency, has not turned over all the documents Issa wants. Weich said the department is providing documents on a continuing basis. The congressman demanded to know who at Justice authorized Operation Fast and Furious. Weich said that question is the subject of an inquiry by the department's inspector general.

Agent Dodson testified that "although my instincts made me want to intervene and interdict these weapons, 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."

"Allowing loads of weapons that we knew to be destined for criminals — this was the plan," said Dodson. "It was so mandated."

In one case, Dodson said, he watched a suspect receive a bag filled with cash from a third party, then proceed to a gun dealer and buy weapons with that cash and deliver them to the same unidentified third party. In that and other circumstances, his instructions were to do nothing.

"Surveillance operations like this were the rule, not the exception," said Dodson. "This was not a matter of weapons getting away from us, or allowing a few to walk so as to follow them to a much larger or more significant target."

The third ATF agent, Olindo James Casa, 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."

Casa said that "the surveillance team followed straw purchasers to Phoenix area firearms dealers and would observe the straw purchasers buy and then depart with numerous firearms in hand. On many of those occasions, the surveillance team would then follow the straw purchasers either to a residence, a public location or until the surveillance team was spotted by the straw purchasers.

But the end result was always the same: the surveillance was terminated" by others up the chain of command.

ATF agent Peter Forcelli said that "when I voiced surprise and concern with this tactic ... my concerns were dismissed" by superiors.

"To allow a gun to walk is idiotic," said Forcelli. "This was a catastrophic disaster."

Forcelli said that "based upon my conversations with agents who assisted in this case, surveillance on individuals who had acquired weapons was often terminated far from the Mexican border." He said that while case agents believed that the weapons were destined for Mexico, "the potential exists that many were sent with cartel drugs to other points within the United States."

He added: "I believe that these firearms will continue to turn up at crimes scenes on both sides of the border for years to come."

NBC's Pete Williams contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Lawmakers slam ATF's gun tracking program

Photos: Mexico violence

loading photos...
  1. Doctors and nurses of the Medical Specialties Hospital hold a candlelight protest against violence in Mexico's Ciudad on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Last Dec. 2, Dr. Alberto Betancourt Rosales, a trauma and orthopedic specialist from this hospital, was kidnapped and his body was found two days later. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An investigative police officer stands by a vehicle that was allegedly abandoned by assailants suspected of shooting two of their fellow officers in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Dec. 6. One investigative police officer died in the shooting, according to police. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The bodies of three men lie together after being placed in the back of a funeral home's pick-up truck after they were killed by unidentified gunmen in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico, Dec. 5. At least 11 men were killed during the first weekend in December in drug cartel violence, authorities say. (Bernandino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A soldier escorts Edgar Jimenez Lugo alias "El Ponchis" as he is presented to the media in Cuernavaca, Dec. 3. Soldiers arrested the 14-year-old suspected drug gang hitman in central Mexico late Dec. 2 as he attempted to travel to the United States. Jimenez, a U.S. citizen, is believed to work for the South Pacific cartel in Morelos state, outside Mexico City and is allegedly part of a gang of teenagers committing brutal murders to eliminate rivals. (Margarito Perez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Members of a forensic team work in a mass grave Nov. 29 in Palomas in Chihuahua state, just across from the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Troops, acting on information obtained from several captured drug hitmen, dug out 18 bodies from 11 graves, police say. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexican federal police escort Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 32, the alleged leader of the Aztecas cross-border drug gang, Nov. 28. The gang is suspected in dozens of killings, with Gallegos linked to last January's killing of 15 youths at a Ciudad Juarez party and in the March murder of a U.S. consulate employee in that city, regional security chief Luis Cardenas Palomino said. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Mexican soldier crouches inside a tunnel found under the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Nov. 26. U.S. border agents said they had found a half-mile-long tunnel under the border and seized a significant amount of marijuana at the San Diego area warehouse where it ended. That tunnel, which measured 1,800 feet and was equipped with a rail system, lighting and ventilation, yielded some 30 tons of marijuana, one of the largest such seizures on the border in recent years. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A forensic worker places stickers reading "Impact" around bullet holes on a car window at a crime scene in Guadalajara, Nov. 22. According to local media, three men riding in the car were shot by unknown assailants. (Alejandro Acosta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Christians pray for peace at the Macroplaza in downtown Monterrey on Nov. 13. More than 30,000 people have been killed across Mexico in drug-related violence since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led crackdown against the cartels. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Galia Rodriguez, 8, daughter of reporter Armando Rodriguez who was killed in Ciudad Juarez, takes part in an anniversary in the journalists's park in the border city on Nov. 13. Two years earlier, suspected drug gangs fatally shot Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks by a banner hung by suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang at a pedestrian bridge in Monterrey, Nov. 6. Suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang hung messages between trees and over bridges in Reynosa and in cities across northeastern Tamaulipas state, celebrating the death of rival Gulf Cartel gang leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas, who was shot dead by marines a day earlier. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A forensic investigator looks in a car where bodyguard Carlos Reyes Almageur lies dead on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, Nov. 4. Carlos Reyes Almageur, a body guard for Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia, was shot to death by unidentified assailants, according to police at the scene. (Carlos Jasso / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Family members and friends mourn during the Oct. 25 funeral of a victim killed at a family birthday party, in Ciudad Juarez. Families mourned the victims of the massacre, one of Mexico's worst shootings, as Ciudad Juarez residents expressed outrage at the surging violence. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People clean a blood-stained patio at a home in Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 23. At least 13 young people were shot dead and 15 wounded in an attack on this house during a 15-year-old boy's birthday party. (Raymundo Ruiz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Morgue workers place a coffin containing an unidentified body into a grave at the San Rafael cemetery on the outskirts of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 22. The bodies of 21 men and four women, killed in drug-related incidents, were buried after being held in the city morgue for several months without being claimed by relatives. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Seized weapons are shown to the press in Mexico City on Oct. 22. The arsenal, allegedly seized from the Zetas drug cartel and found hidden in a horse trailer, included high-power rifles, grenades and ammunition. Two people were arrested in connection with the seizure. (Miguel Tovar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Soldiers unload 134 tons of marijuana to be incinerated at the military base Morelos in Tijuana, Oct. 20. Soldiers seized the drug earlier that week in Mexico's biggest-ever pot haul, the army said. Heavily armed soldiers raided a series of homes in a poor suburb of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif., and came under fire at least once as they took the drugs and arrested 11 suspected traffickers. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People gather around a peace dove made out of candles in the patio of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon during a protest against violence and in memory of slain university student Lucila Quintanilla in Monterrey, Oct. 15. Once an oasis of calm, Mexico's richest city has become a central battleground in the country's increasingly bloody drug war as cartels open fire on city streets and throw grenades onto busy highways. (Edgar Montelongo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A forensic expert looks at a bag containing a human head with a written message on it outside the newspaper Frontera in Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 12. (Alejandro Cossio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mexican police agents look at a man's corpse on a street of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 4. Since the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels in late 2006, violence has claimed nearly 30,000 lives. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    The blindfolded and hand-tied bodies of 72 people thought to be migrant workers lie at a ranch where they were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Aug. 26. The marines came across the bodies after a series of firefights with drug gang members. (Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents attend a downtown public funeral service for Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of the tourist town of Santiago, some 18.6 miles away from Monterrey, Aug. 19. Drug hitmen have killed at least 17 mayors across Mexico since early 2008, according to media tallies. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A gold-plated, engraved and diamond-inlaid handgun is on on display at the Museum of Drugs in Mexico City, Aug. 18. Gold-encrusted weapons, children clothes decorated with LSD-laced stickers and religious paintings packed with cocaine offer a glimpse into Mexico's growing drug culture in this unique museum. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    The grandmother of police officer Jose Ramirez grieves over his body after he was killed by unidentified gunmen while on patrol in Las Joyas neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, July 17. Ramirez's grandmother did not give her name, citing security. Three other officers in the vehicle were also killed in the attack. (Bernardino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tape used to cordon off a crime scene lies surrounded by blood in Ciudad Juarez, Jan 31. Suspected drug hitmen burst into a party and killed 13 people, most of them teenagers, in one of the world's deadliest cities. (Alejandro Bringas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Police officers investigate the scene of a car bomb attack on a main avenue in downtown Ciudad Juarez, July 16. An armed commando set off a car bomb near three police patrol vehicles patrolling the border town, killing two police officers and wounding 12 others. Another grenade exploded when paramedics and journalists arrived, leaving three medical assistants seriously injured and a cameraman with minor injuries. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Image:
    Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
    Above: Slideshow (26) Mexico violence
  2. BLOODSHED IN JUAREZ
    Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images
    Slideshow (15) Mexico under siege

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments