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.
"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.