Even as high-powered weapons flowed toward Mexican drug cartels in a controversial U.S. surveillance program, hundreds more guns probably escaped into the hands of criminals inside the U.S., federal agents told Congress on Wednesday.
"We weren't giving guns to people who were hunting bears. We were giving guns to people who were killing people," Peter Forcelli, group supervisor at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives inPhoenix, told a House committee.
The ATF agents said they were ordered to watch as more than 1,700 guns, including AK-47 variants and other high-powered rifles, were sold to "straw purchasers" in Arizona and then transferred to suspected agents of Mexico's violent drug trafficking organizations.
Mexican officials now believe that at least 150 Mexicans have been killed or wounded with guns smuggled in the operation, code-named Fast and Furious. Less understood is what happened to guns that slipped into the hands of suspected criminals in the U.S.
By the ATF's own estimates, at least 372 guns sold to suspect purchasers have been recovered in Arizona and Texas, mainly at crime scenes. ATF Agent John Dodson has estimated that about a third of the guns sold as part of the operation remained in the U.S.
"These firearms will continue to turn up at crime scenes on both sides of the border for years to come," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which heard testimony from disgruntled ATF agents, the Justice Department and the family of former Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who died in a December shootout with Mexican bandits in southern Arizona. Two weapons sold under the operation, run out of the Phoenix ATF office, were found at the scene of the shootout.
Faced with the agents' testimony, Assistant Atty. Gen. Ronald Weich backtracked on a letter he wrote in February asserting that "the allegation … that ATF 'sanctioned' or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico is false."
"Obviously, there have been allegations that call into serious question that particular letter … [although] everything we say is true to the best of our knowledge at the time we say it," Weich told the committee. "Some of the testimony that was provided today is of great concern to the Justice Department," he added. "We share the committee's interest in getting to the bottom of these allegations."
A series of emails released as part of the hearing show that acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson and deputy Bill Hoover were getting weekly briefings on the operation. Melson also had requested and been supplied with log-in information that would allow him to monitor the video surveillance of an Arizona gun dealership supplying weapons under the ATF's watch.
"With this information … Melson was able to sit at his desk in Washington and, himself, watch a live feed of the straw buyers entering the gun stores to purchase dozens of AK-47 variants," Issa's office said in a statement accompanying the emails.
"Every agent from outside of thePhoenix field division, sir, as well as many in it, as soon as they came in, were appalled as soon as they learned" about the operation, Dodson said.
Dodson and two fellow agents who testified said their repeated objections were rebuffed.
"When I voiced surprise and concern with this tactic to [Phoenix Special Agent in Charge] William Newell and [assistant] George Gillett, my concerns were dismissed. SAC Newell referred to the case as 'groundbreaking' and bragged that 'we're the only people in the country doing this,' " Forcelli told the committee.
The agents said they had no idea how their superiors planned to prosecute senior members of Mexican cartels for buying the weapons when surveillance was routinely called off once the guns were transferred by the straw purchasers, they said.
ATF supervisors were "giddy" when a gun sold in Arizona would turn up on a crime-scene database in Mexico, Dodson said, because they thought "it created their nexus from the straw purchaser to the cartel."
But he said experienced agents didn't see how prosecutors could draw a connection in court between the sale in Arizona and the crime in Mexico without having monitored the progress of the guns along the way, and without the cooperation of the Mexican government, which had not been brought into the loop.
"There's not a rookie police officer in this country who can explain to you how they're going to make a case based on that information," he said. "We never took the steps to make a conspiracy case."