The ATF’s field supervisor on the Southwest border sent a series of emails last year to a top White House national security official detailing the agency’s ambitious efforts to stop weapons trafficking into Mexico, but did not mention that a botched sting operation had allowed hundreds of guns to flow to drug cartels.
Over three days in September 2010, William D. Newell, a 20-year veteran who at the time was the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ field operations in Arizona and New Mexico, briefed Kevin M. O’Reilly, director of North American affairs for the White House national security staff. Newell sent the emails in advance of a meeting between Mexican officials and John Brennan, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor.
A White House official confirmed Thursday that Newell had said nothing about the specific tactics used to fight weapons traffickers, which included allowing “straw” purchasers to buy guns without immediately arresting them, in hopes the small-time traffickers would lead authorities to the cartels and reveal smuggling routes into Mexico. The so-called Fast and Furious operation was run out of the ATF’s Phoenix field office.
As soon as Fast and Furious began in November 2009, ATF agents complained about orders to let the guns “walk” — a risky move that failed when the ATF lost track of most of the weapons. By the time of Newell’s emails to the White House 10 months later, the ATF was trying to contain the knowledge that hundreds of guns had dropped out of sight and wound up on the streets of Mexico and the U.S.
On Sept. 1, 2010, O’Reilly reached out to Newell, a longtime friend. “We want John Brennan well-prepared to talk GRIT with the Mexicans next Wednesday,” he wrote, referring to the Gun Runner Impact Team’s efforts against the cartels.
Newell responded the next day. He mentioned a trafficking case — one outside the Fast and Furious program — and noted plans for a news conference to announce arrests.
“Sounds good,” O’Reilly replied.
In subsequent emails, Newell told O’Reilly that “we will take action against those folks” who are small-time weapons traffickers. “In reality, we look at ‘straw’ purchasers as the lowest ring on the firearms trafficking ladder,” he said, “but in many investigations we need their cooperation in order to identify the real traffickers and middlemen.”
This tactic “adds tremendous leverage to our efforts to get the truth from them so we can work our way up the ladder” to the cartels, he said.
Newell did not mention Fast and Furious, but the goals he outlined to O’Reilly closely matched the intent of the program, which Newell oversaw.
The operation was a secret guarded so carefully that it was kept even from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, which had complained about a surge of assault weapons. Nearly 200 of the Fast and Furious weapons eventually turned up at crime scenes in Mexico.
The series of emails obtained by The Times are the first indication that the White House was not immediately told of the failures of Fast and Furious, which ultimately lost track of about 1,700 guns.
A White House official said Thursday that Newell’s emails were “not in relation to Fast and Furious” but rather to brief the White House about other trafficking cases to prep Brennan. The official asked not to be identified because Congress and the inspector general’s office of the Justice Department have ongoing investigations.
“There was no mention of investigative tactics like letting the guns walk or the details of how this was all going down,” the official said.
“The attorney general has made clear he takes the allegations about Fast and Furious very seriously, and that’s why he asked for the inspector general to investigate the matter,” the official said. “And it’s also why you see the Justice Department cooperating with the House oversight committee.”
Asked whether Newell meant to keep the White House in the dark about Fast and Furious, the official replied, “That’s a great question for Newell.”
Newell could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Paul E. Pelletier, declined to comment.
Asked by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) at a hearing Tuesday if he had discussed Fast and Furious in any forum with O’Reilly, Newell said, “I might have talked to him about this case, yes sir.”
He added that he probably “shouldn’t have been sending him” the emails, suggesting that doing so skirted his normal chain of command. But he called O’Reilly “a friend of mine. He asked for information, and I provided it to him.”
One of the first cases under Fast and Furious involved weapons from a firearms store in Glendale, Ariz. The ATF soon lost track of those guns, and two guns bought there in January 2010 showed up 11 months later at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry died in a firefight.
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