Friday, September 2, 2011

Operation Fast and Furious LIII

Congress should continue probe of failed operation that let guns reach the hands of criminals

Continued probing by Congress is needed into the botched federal gun-running sting known as Operation Fast and Furious. This week, the acting head of the primary agency that ran the failed sting, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was removed and reassigned. But the real question is how much about the operation was known by senior members of the U.S. Department of Justice, including Atty. Gen. Eric Holder.
Operation Fast and Furious was run out of the Phoenix office of the ATF, with the cooperation of the local U.S. attorney and other federal investigative agencies. The goal was to monitor the sale of weapons to purchasers who may have been acting as middlemen or "straw buyers" for Mexican drug gangs. The problem is that the agents lost track of nearly 2,000 of the weapons, some of which have turned up at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico. The issue has resonance in Michigan because two automatic weapons that federal agents let out of their sight were recovered at the Arizona murder scene of a U.S. Border Patrol officer, Brian Terry. Terry attended high school in Flat Rock and was a former Metro Detroit police officer. According to a joint congressional report issued by the staffs of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa and Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., "the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry likely was a preventable tragedy."
Issa and Grassley, in letters to Holder and other Justice Department officials, have complained repeatedly about the department's lack of cooperation in their investigation. The former head of the ATF who was removed this week, Kenneth Melson, told congressional investigators he had argued within the department that its uncooperativeness would hurt the ATF and Justice, according to a July 18 letter to Holder from the senator and the congressman.
In that letter, Melson is quoted as saying to congressional investigators that it "appears ... that the Department (of Justice) is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the department."
Holder has said he didn't know about the operation until the congressional investigation began earlier this year. Both Holder and President Barack Obama have said they can't say more pending an internal Justice Department inquiry.
But Issa, Grassley and others in Congress have said the removal of Melson won't make this issue go away. It shouldn't. Congressional investigators are wise to keep probing on their own as they await the results of the department's investigation. On the basis of Melson's testimony, the Justice Department's inquiry shouldn't be the last word on this operation.

White House received emails about Fast and Furious gun-trafficking operation

Three national security officials were given some details about the operation. But an administration official says the emails do not prove that anyone in the White House was aware of the covert tactics of the program.

By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
September 2, 2011,0,7480365.story
Reporting from Washington
Newly obtained emails show that the White House was better informed about a failed gun-tracking operation on the border with Mexico than was previously known.

Three White House national security officials were given some details about the operation, dubbed Fast and Furious. The operation allowed firearms to be illegally purchased, with the goal of tracking them to Mexican drug cartels. But the effort went out of control after agents lost track of many of the weapons.

The supervisor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation in Phoenix specifically mentioned Fast and Furious in at least one email to a White House national security official, and two other White House colleagues were briefed on reports from the supervisor, according to White House emails and a senior administration official.

But the senior administration official said the emails, obtained Thursday by The Times, did not prove that anyone in the White House was aware of the covert "investigative tactics" of the operation.

"The emails validate what has been said previously, which is no one at the White House knew about the investigative tactics being used in the operation, let alone any decision to let guns walk," said the official, who was not authorized to speak about it publicly. "To the extent that some [national security staff members] were briefed on the top lines of ongoing federal efforts, so were members of Congress."

He identified the three White House officials who were briefed as Kevin M. O'Reilly, director of North American Affairs for the White House national security staff; Dan Restrepo, the president's senior Latin American advisor; and Greg Gatjanis, a White House national security official.

"The emails were not forwarded beyond them, and we are not aware of any [additional] briefings related to that email chain," the official said.

The emails were sent between July 2010 and February of this year before it was disclosed that agents had lost track of hundreds of guns. Many are thought to have fallen into criminal hands, and some have turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States, including at the fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) are trying to determine what the Justice Department and the White House knew about the program.

According to the emails, William D. Newell, then the ATF field supervisor for Arizona and New Mexico, was in close contact with O'Reilly and sought the White House's help to persuade the Mexican government to let ATF agents recover U.S. guns across the border.

After earlier emails from Newell to O'Reilly surfaced, Newell testified to congressional investigators in July that the two were friends and acknowledged that he probably should not have sent them to him. But the new emails indicate that Newell and O'Reilly were in deeper discussions about gun operations on the border.

In July 2010, about nine months after Fast and Furious started, O'Reilly was seeking information about ways to fight gun trafficking in Arizona when he emailed Newell.

"Just an informal 'how's it going?' " he wrote. He titled the email "GRIT Surge Phoenix," an acronym for Gun Runner Impact Teams.

Newell replied that things were "going very well actually."

Though not mentioning Fast and Furious by name, he talked about large numbers of ATF agents being temporarily transferred to Arizona to work on cases, apparently alluding to the Fast and Furious program. He also praised their work on "firearms trafficking investigations with direct links to Mexican" cartels, which was the main goal of Fast and Furious.

"This is great," O'Reilly replied. "Very informative."

O'Reilly asked whether he could share the information with Restrepo and Gatjanis. He added that the information "would not leave NSS, I assure you."

Newell answered, "Sure, just don't want ATF HQ to find out, especially since this is what they should be doing (briefing you)!"

A third email went from Newell to O'Reilly on Feb. 11, two months after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in Arizona and Fast and Furious weapons were found at the scene.

Newell discussed the just-obtained indictments of 20 people, including Jaime Avila, for illegal gun purchasing. It was two of Avila's guns bought under Fast and Furious that ended up at the Terry shooting. This time, Newell specifically mentioned Fast and Furious.

"The Fast and Furious indictment is listed under U.S. v Avila and that's the one in which there's an introduction of the techniques used by firearms traffickers," he told O'Reilly. He suggested "we" should use the indictment to draw attention to the arrests through the media in Mexico.

In another development, the Justice Department said it knew of only one other instance where a Fast and Furious weapon was "recovered in connection with a crime of violence in the U.S." Earlier it had said there were 11 instances.


Cover-up in ATF gunwalker case?

by Sharyl Attkisson

Congressional investigators tell CBS News there's evidence the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona sought to cover up a link between their controversial gunwalking operation known as "Fast and Furious" and the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Terry was murdered in Arizona near the US border last December. Two assault rifles ATF had allegedly allowed onto the street without interdiction were found at the scene.
But the US Attorney's office working both the Terry murder and the "Fast and Furious" operation did not immediately disclose the two had any link. Two Republicans investigating the scandal, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) say there's evidence that officials at ATF and the US Attorney's office sought to hide the connection.

In a letter, Grassley and Issa say the lead prosecutor on Fast and Furious, Assistant US Attorney Emory Hurley, learned almost immediately that guns allowed onto the street in his case, had been recovered at Terry's murder. "(I)n the hours after Agent Terry's death," says the letter from Grassley and Issa, Hurley apparently "contemplated the connection between the two cases and sought to prevent the connection from being disclosed." The Justice Department recently transferred Hurley out of the criminal division into the civil division.

An internal ATF email dated the day after Terry's death reveals the quick decision to not disclose the source of the weapons found at the murder scene: "... this way we do not divulge our current case (Fast and Furious) or the Border Patrol shooting case."

Another ATF email indicates that the justification both offices used to not charge the suspect with crimes related to the murder scene "was to not 'complicate' the FBI's investigation."

ATF whistleblowers revealed the link between the two cases to Congressional investigators and CBS News, saying their supervisors were attempting to cover it up.

Today's letter from the Congressional Republicans also criticizes Hurley's boss, US Attorney Dennis Burke. It says Burke denied a connection between Fast and Furious and Terry's murder in court, but recently "readily admitted the connection" in an interview with Congressional investigators. Burke resigned from his job on Tuesday.

The Justice Department had no immediate comment. Burke and Hurley were not immediately reachable for comment.

Evidence Suggests Cover-Up in ATF Scandal, as More Guns Appear at Crime Scenes

By William La Jeunesse

Just hours after the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, federal officials tried to cover up evidence that the gun that killed Terry was one the government intentionally helped sell to the Mexican cartels in a weapons trafficking program known as Operation Fast and Furious.
The revelation comes just days after a huge shake-up of government officials who oversaw the failed anti-gun trafficking program and Congress renewed its demand for more answers.
Also late Thursday, Sen. Charles Grassley's office revealed that 21 more Fast and Furious guns have been found at violent crime scenes in Mexico. That is up from 11 the agency admitted just last month.
“The Justice Department has been less than forthcoming since day one, so the revisions here are hardly surprising, and the numbers will likely rise until the more than 1,000 guns that were allowed to fall into the hands of bad guys are recovered -- most likely years down the road," Grassley said in a statement released Thursday. 
"What we’re still waiting for are the answers to the other questions the Attorney General failed to answer per our agreement. The cooperation of the Attorney General and his staff is needed if we’re ever going to get to the bottom of this disastrous policy and help the ATF and the department move forward.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Grassley, R-Iowa, said they are expanding their investigation into the scandal on Thursday. In a strongly worded letter to Anne Scheel, the new U.S. attorney for Arizona, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee requested interviews, emails, memos and even hand-written notes from members of the U.S. attorney's office that played key roles in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) program.
Issa and Grassley said they want to speak with Assistant U.S. Attorneys Emory Hurley and Michael Morrissey, along with Patrick Cunningham, chief of the office’s Criminal Division.
Not only do congressional investigators want to "make sense" of details of the operation that allowed more than 2,000 guns to "walk" and later turn up at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, but they want to known why Hurley -- who knew almost immediately the guns found at Terry's crime scene belonged to Fast and Furious -- tried to "prevent the connection from being disclosed."
In an internal email the day after the murder, Hurley, and then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, decided not to disclose the connection, saying " ... this way we do not divulge our current case (Fast and Furious) or the Border Patrol shooting case."
“The level of involvement of the United States Attorney’s Office … in the genesis and implementation of this case is striking,” wrote Issa and Grassley.
The two claim witnesses have told them that recently reassigned Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley may have also prevented ATF agents from doing their jobs.
“Many ATF agents working on Operation Fast and Furious were under the impression that even some of the most basic law enforcement techniques typically used to interdict weapons required the explicit approval of your office, specifically that from Hurley,” the letter states.

Read more:


Tuesday's replacement of the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who led Operation Fast and Furious, and resignation of the U.S. attorney for Arizona, who oversaw related prosecutions, are fitting consequences for their roles in that fiasco.
But they leave open questions of higher officials' culpability.
Still unclear is who's responsible for allowing illegal U.S. sales of hundreds of guns that agents lost track of while supposedly following their illicit trafficking to Mexican drug cartels. Until definitive answers emerge, denials of responsibility by Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama remain as suspect as the notion that Justice's internal probe will reveal the Fast and Furious truth.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., says he wants "to ensure that blame isn't offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department." His independent investigation, which continues, remains the best hope for getting to the bottom of this mess.
As Justice's head, Mr. Holder at least must be held accountable for the Fast and Furious mess on his watch -- as must any higher official who's culpable, too. And for Holder, as we've editorialized before, that means his resignation.

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