Monday, May 20, 2013
By SARI HORWITZ The Washington Post
The "Fast and Furious" gunrunning operation has been widely condemned by Republicans, Democrats and even top officials at the Justice Department as a failed sting. The case has led to the ouster of U.S. attorney in Phoenix Dennis Burke, President Obama's first use of executive privilege and a probable vote of contempt today against the attorney general.
U.S. Attorney for Phoenix Dennis Burke speaks behind seized weapons in Phoenix last year. Burke was forced to resign amid the fallout from the Justice Department’s controversial “Fast and Furious” campaign to rein in gunrunning to Mexican drug cartels.
The Associated Press
But in the eyes of the man who started and oversaw Fast and Furious, the operation remains an example of smart law enforcement -- an approach that simply has been misunderstood.
"It was the only way to dismantle an entire firearms-trafficking ring and stop the thousands of guns flowing to Mexico," said William D. Newell, a veteran federal agent who spent five years as the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.
In his first public interview about the operation, Newell said that he believed that he and his agents were working the largest gun-trafficking case of their careers and finally had a window into Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel. To identify cartel members, ATF agents, beginning in 2009, watched as about 2,000 weapons purchased at Phoenix gun stores hit the streets, with the goal of tracing them to the cartel. The tactic became known as "gunwalking." But on Dec. 14, 2010, Operation Fast and Furious came crashing down. A Border Patrol agent was killed in the Arizona desert, and two AK-47s found at the scene were linked to Newell's operation. Agents working under him, enraged, went to lawmakers about the operation, sparking an 18-month investigation led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who called Fast and Furious "felony stupid."
While Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has turned over 7,600 documents related to the case, he has refused to turn over all of the Justice Department memos and emails that reflect internal deliberations that took place after Congress began its investigation. The White House has invoked executive privilege in the matter. As a result, the House is scheduled to vote today on whether Holder should become the first-ever sitting attorney general to be held in contempt.
Democrats charge that the battle is political theater, backed by the National Rifle Association, to embarrass Holder and the White House in an election year. But Republicans adamantly deny the contempt vote is about politics.
They say that the issue is about an attorney general whose Justice Department, in refusing to release documents, is covering up what senior officials knew and when about a botched gun operation that allowed thousands of firearms onto U.S. streets and into Mexico and resulted in the death of a U.S. border agent.
Holder has called the gun operation "flawed" and asked his inspector general to investigate. He has repeatedly maintained that he did not know about the tactics used until February 2011, after Congress began investigating.
According to Newell, there is no evidence that Holder or any high-ranking Justice Department official knew the ins and outs of his gun case. But plenty of other officials in the ATF and the Phoenix U.S. Attorney's Office did -- and approved it, Newell said.
In the fall of 2009, the Justice Department was putting pressure on Newell and his agents to combat Mexican cartels by identifying and eliminating the pipelines used to move guns across the border. There were calls in Washington to bring down the trafficking network, not just the people on the lowest rung who buy guns legally, then transfer them to the cartels.
The small-time gunrunners were simply slapped with small fines or acquitted in court while the cartel bosses stayed safely out of reach of investigators.
(Continued on page 2)