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.
However, the lead ATF official in Mexico at the time, Darren Gil, told Attkisson on March 25 that his supervisor at ATF's Washington D.C. headquarters told him the operation was approved higher than ATF Director Melson.
"Is the director aware of this? Gil asked the supervisor. Gil says his supervisor answered, "Yes, the director's aware of it. Not only is the director aware of it, DOJ's aware of it. The Department of Justice was aware of it.
After ATF failed to provide the requested records to Issa or Grassley, they issued a Congressional subpoena on April 1. By April 20, after ATF failed to respond to the subpoena, Issa threatened to begin contempt proceedings.
On May 3, Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee and told Congress he didn't know who had approved Fast and Furious, but that it was being investigated.
"I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks, Holder said in his testimony. "The notion that somehow or other this Justice Department is responsible for those deaths that you mentioned, that assertion is offensive.
However, Issa released three documents he suggests undermine Holder's claim, including a memo noting the involvement of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, who worked as one of Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Napolitano's chiefs of staff when she was the governor of Arizona, expressing support for allowing "the transfer of firearms to continue to take place.
Another document shows an approved wiretap application with Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer's name on it. Although Breur didn't sign it, The Daily Caller reports, his Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanc did. A March 10 email also clarifies rules from the Deputy Attorney General on guns crossing the border.
A New York Times article reports internal emails discussed how Melson and his acting deputy of the ATF, William Hoover, were "keenly interested in the Fast and Furious operation and received weekly updates on it.
"In light of this new evidence, the Justice Department's claim that ATF never knowingly sanctioned or allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers is simply not credible, Grassley wrote in a letter to Holder.
Various emails also show the agents involved in Fast and Furious weren't the only ones uncomfortable with the program. Those who were asked to sell guns to straw purchasers also expressed unease.
In response to one concerned email, David Voth, Group Supervisor for Phoenix Group VII, wrote, "I understand that the frequency with which some individuals under investigation by our office have been purchasing firearms from your business has caused concerns for you We are working in conjunction with the United States Attorney's Office (Federal Prosecutors) to secure the most comprehensive case involving the different facets of this organization.
Another gun seller wrote to Voth expressing worries about guns reaching the hands of drug cartels.
"The [June 15, 2010 Fox News] segment, if the information was correct, is disturbing to me, the gun seller wrote. "On May 13th I shared my concerns with you guys that I wanted to make sure that none of the firearms that were sold per our conversation with you and various ATF agents could or would ever end up south of the border or in the hands of the bad guys. I guess I am looking for a bit of reassurance that the guns are not getting south or in the wrong hands.
Melson, who some expected to resign after the Fast and Furious controversy began, met with Republican and Democrat staffers on July 4. His secret testimony added more fuel to the fire as he discussed the Department of Justice's involvement.
According to U.S. News, during the secret meeting Melson suggested top Justice officials muzzled ATF as it sought to clean up after two of its guns were linked to Terry's death. The Washington Times also reports Melson told the panel's investigators that after he and ATF's senior leadership team reassigned every manager involved in Operation Fast and Furious, they were prohibited from telling Congress about the reassignments.
CBS News reports that Issa and Grassley found another report from Melson even more troubling, saying that Melson's responses "tended to corroborate allegations by some ATF agents that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were already watching some of the same suspects ATF was attempting to identify.
"If true, the allegation raises serious questions for the Department of Justice, which oversees all three agencies and has so far denied knowledge that guns were being "walked across the border in an effort to make cases against the big cartels, reporter Chris Scholl writes.
Even though many questions still remain about who authorized Fast and Furious and who knew about it, already some have turned the argument away from the investigation and onto gun control.
Proponents of tighter gun control measures claim the Fast and Furious controversy means the U.S. needs tighter gun control regulations, while opponents of tightening restrictions suggest it was created as an excuse to target gun control regulations in the first place.
On Monday the Justice Department announced that all gun shops in Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico must report purchases of two or more of some type of rifles by the same person in a five-day span, the Associated Press reports. Critics call the policy "the height of hypocrisy following Fast and Furious, while supporters say it is exactly what is needed.
On June 13 Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. released a report claiming 70 percent of firearms recovered in Mexico come from the United States. This, Feinstein says in a news release, means the U.S. needs legislation to close the gun show loophole, better enforcement of the existing ban on imports of military-style weapons and reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.
Rep. Elijah Cummings also suggested the U.S. needs tighter gun laws to "stop guns from getting into the hands of the world's most dangerous criminals, Politico reports.
The New York Times said the Fast and Furious scandal makes a perfect opening to pass new legislation, writing, "A responsible Congress would re-enact the assault weapons ban, outlaw uncontrolled gun-show sales and reform regulations that allow corrupt dealers to stay in business.
The Los Angeles Times writes that while ATF must be held accountable for Fast and Furious, "Congress and the White House are responsible for letting the agency drift, and for failing to adopt sensible laws to prevent mass straw purchases.
However, on the other side of the gun control debate, Grassley disputed Feinstein's data in his own news release a week later, saying that the data was a "selective release of certain statistical data that inaccurately reflects the scope and source of the problems of firearms in Mexico and the drug trafficking organization violence.
In his letter, Grassley broke down the data to show that nearly 66 percent of firearms traced in 2010 were not traced to a United States licensed gun dealer. Additionally, Grassley writes that the statics used to suggest most of the guns in Mexico come from the U.S. included firearms the ATF purposefully sent into Mexico.
At Pajamas Media, Hans A. von Spakovsky writes that two Washington Post articles — one written the day before Agent Terry was killed by ATF guns, and one targeting Issa in the midst of the Fast and Furious probe — show double-dealing designed to mislead.
"It was bad enough that the ATF was running a secret operation that had gone off the rails and was supplying dangerous weapons to violent Mexican drug cartels, von Spakovsky writes. "But then the agency apparently leaked deceptive information on gun sales that put the gun dealers in a bad light, or at a minimum, misled the Post when it should have tried to provide cover for dealers who were following ATF instructions.
A post at Human Events expands on this idea as John Hayward writes, "Connect the dots: a story that almost certainly required information leaked by the ATF, in a paper noted for its friendliness to the Administration, was used to build the case that lax American gun control laws are contributing to Mexican gun crimes, when the ATF was secretly running a program that deliberately pushed American guns into the hands of Mexican cartels, without any serious plan to track them, until they were used in the commission of crimes.
He concludes, "Now, take an educated guess what the true purpose of Operation Fast and Furious was.
An Investor's Business Daily editorial also suggests the operation was done for political purposes, "and not merely stupidity. These purposes, the editorial states, were to "whip up a crisis requiring a crackdown on guns in the U.S., and also to force Melson to resign from the ATF so gun-control-oriented ATF agent Andrew Traver could be put in as head of the agency.
A lengthy post by Kathleen Millar at the Foreign Policy Association blog suggests that Mexican president Felipe Calderon's careful reaction to Fast and Furious suggests an intersection of politics and policy where Mexico ends up with more American money and the ban on the sale of assault rifles in the U.S. is reinstated.25 comments on this story
If Dodson hadn't become a whistleblower, the gun used to kill Agent Brian Terry would have been identified as being from a U.S. gun dealer, but the ATF connection would have been covered up, she says. This, in turn, would have reinforced Mexico's claim that U.S. guns are flooding the border and bolstered America's anti-gun lobby's argument that the U.S. needs tighter gun control laws
But, she writes, whoever threw down the weapon that killed Terry made a mistake.
"He underestimated the courage of Brian Terry's colleagues in U.S. law enforcement, and the need of ATF Agent John Dodson, to tell the truth. The only question now for Representative Issa's committee and the American people is — do we have the guts to listen?