In the heat of the Arizona sun, armed with commands from senior government officials, special agents set out to instruct gun store owners to sell thousands of semi-automatic weapons to illegal straw purchasers. The weapons, once in the hands of criminals, would be run across the border in a scheme by the U.S. government to bring down Mexican arms smuggling networks.
It sounds like a plot out of a summer action flick; the kind of storyline that is made up by Hollywood screen writers and played by a cast of A-list movie stars. It’s not. Instead, it is the very serious reality of a program run through the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that has captured national attention and concern.
Last December, when U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered in a firefight with drug runners in Nogales, Ariz., two of the rifles used in the firefight were traced to – and later shed light on – an operation called “Fast and Furious,” led by the ATF. In the operation, ATF officials told gun-store owners to sell weapons to “strawbuyers,” individuals who legally bought the weapons with the intention of transferring them to criminals destined for Mexico. The ATF monitored the exchanges. But instead of intercepting the weapons when they changed hands, they allowed the guns to “walk” across the border into Mexico in what has become known as “gunrunning.”
Once the weapons were in Mexico, the idea of Operation Fast and Furious was to trace the weapons back to the strawbuyers and bring down the entire smuggling network. Over 2,000 semiautomatic guns – valued at over one million dollars – were placed into the hands of known criminal organizations.
In a House Oversight Committee hearing in May, Attorney General Eric Holder was unwilling to provide answers about who at the Department of Justice authorized or knew about Operation Fast and Furious. But just last week in a hearing before the same committee with testimony from ATF agents, members of Congress learned that the operation was not only done in a conscious decision by senior officials at the ATF, but that it was intentionally and enthusiastically orchestrated.
Agents testified before the committee that the supervisor of the operation was “jovial, if not, not giddy but just delighted about” walked guns showing up at crime scenes in Mexico. ATF agents have shared chilling accounts of being ordered to stand down, allowing criminals to walk away with guns headed for Mexican drug cartels. Emails released last week by Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the Oversight Committee, revealed that the acting director of the program even arranged to watch live feeds from ATF cameras in gun stores being used by the program while sitting at his desk.
The reality that such an operation would go this far is astounding. After all, the ATF is the government entity charged with preventing the illegal transfer of weapons to Mexico.
But the consequences of such a strategy are even more chilling. Operation Fast and Furious has already led to deaths that would not have occurred if the DOJ had not authorized such a miscalculated and dangerous operation. For officials to think this operation would result in anything other than tragedy was naivety at best; negligence at worst.
The operation has fractured the reputation of the United States – the Department of Justice has said the purpose of the investigation was to dismantle a transnational organization believed to be responsible for trafficking weapons into Mexico. However, the ATF was not working with Mexican officials. The operation condemned Mexican lawmakers after it came to light, calling it a “grave violation of international rights.”
The Department of Justice has yet to provide answers as to why the government allowed guns to be trafficked into Mexico as part of a program designed to stop guns from being trafficked into Mexico.
In March, I joined with Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and other members of the Committee in writing a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for answers to questions surrounding the operation, including information on who and on what authority the program was approved, whether the program is still active, and whether the ATF views the program as a success. The stonewalled response we received provided little to no details. It wasn’t until agents agreed to testify at last week’s hearing that Members of Congress began to learn more details.
The problem with Operation Fast and Furious is not just that it was miscalculated or that the DOJ has failed to provide details about the program. On a larger scale, Operation Fast and Furious has become a symbol of the arrogance of government that the American people begrudge. We have an agency doing the opposite of what is was commissioned to do, a department that is failing to provide details of what really happened with Operation Fast and Furious, and a program that has ended in another investigation. The more questions that remain unanswered in the case of Operation Fast and Furious, the more distrustful Americans will become.