Congress investigates U.S. policy that purposely put guns in hands of Mexican drug cartels

Critics say operation now being used to push for tighter gun control in states

Published: Tuesday, July 26 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Political analyst Brit Hume said it reminds him of Nixon's Justice Department. Writer Bob Owens considers it worse than the Iran-Contra scandal. Mexican lawmakers want those responsible extradited and prosecuted in Mexico. And American taxpayers funded at least $10 million worth of it through the 2009 stimulus.

This is Project Gunrunner — or more specifically, "Operation Fast and Furious" — which purposely released as many as 1,800 weapons to members of Mexican drug cartels as a way to trace the guns and link users to crimes.

According to an Oversight and Government Reform Committee report, Fast and Furious began in 2009 as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) shifted from seizing firearms as soon as possible to using weapons to identify members of trafficking networks.

Special Agent John Dodson of the ATF Phoenix Field Division was the original whistleblower to come forward about the operation. Group Supervisor Pete Forcelli, Special Agent Olindo Casa and Special Agent Larry Alt joined him in expressing concerns and discussing their experiences with the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

In the report, Dodson says within his first week of working on the project he saw between 30 and 50 guns bought by straw purchasers, who would later transfer the guns to the hands of criminals. Instead of arresting the straw purchasers or stopping the sales, Dodson says they were told to stand down, allowing the guns to "walk" over the border.

Casa said situations would arise where known straw purchasers would buy guns and immediately transfer them to an "unknown male, and they were still not allowed to intervene.

"We were walking guns, Dodson said in the committee report. "It was our decision. We had the information. We had the duty and responsibility to act, and we didn't do so.

According to Dodson's testimony, he asked a special agent, "Are you prepared to go to a border agent's funeral over this or a Cochise County deputy's over this? Because that's going to happen. The sentiment he received in response, he said, was, "If you are going to make an omelet, you need to scramble some eggs.

In December 2010, Brian Terry, a member of a special tactical border squad was killed while he was on patrol. The guns used in his murder were later traced back to Fast and Furious.

Following Terry's death, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, began investigating. CBS News' Sharyl Attkisson, one of the first journalists to begin following the story, reported in March that Grassley's efforts to gain information on Terry's death and Fast and Furious up to that point had resulted in "practically zilch.

On March 3, Kenneth Melson, Acting Director of ATF, announced ATF would review its "current firearms trafficking strategies.

Since that time, Grassley, along with Rep. Darrell Issa, the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, have continued to dig. The investigation, however, hasn't been easy.

On March 16, Issa sent a letter to Melson requesting cooperation with congressional inquires. In his letter, he wrote that Special Agent in Charge William Newell denied a gun walking policy existed, as did the Department of Justice. He also requested documents relating to the project, a list of individuals responsible for authorizing it and various documents and communications about Fast and Furious.

In an interview with a reporter from Univision on March 23, President Barack Obama said neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder approved the operation.

"Well, first of all, I did not authorize it, Obama said. "Eric Holder, the Attorney General, did not authorize it. He's been very clear that our policy is to catch gunrunners and put them in jail.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere