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ATF’s Fast & Furious- Obama’s ‘Weaponsgate’?

Has ATF created ‘weaponsgate’?

Fast and Furious restricted to in-house investigation

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif), Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are going after the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco (ATF)—the same folks who brought us Waco and Ruby Ridge—as well as Eric Holder, US Attorney General and head of the Department of Justice (DOJ—ATF’s parent agency).

That means they’re also looking at Holder’s boss, President Barack Obama.

The problem this time is Project Gunrunner, and its offspring initiative, Operation Fast and Furious—an operation that only came to light when an ATF whistle blower, ATF Agent John Dodson, stepped forward with disturbing, detailed information about the ‘secret’ ATF undertaking.

The facts Dodson has shared with Congress are startling indeed—enough, say some critics, to warrant an all-out ‘Weaponsgate’ type of investigation into ATF’s latest debacle.

Illegal operation capsizes Presidency

It seems that over roughly a three year period, ATF agents have been pressuring US gun dealers, mostly along the Arizona-Mexico border, to sell thousands of semi-automatic weapons to ‘straw buyers,’ in this case to Mexicans (it’s illegal for US gun dealers to sell weapons to Mexican nationals), who then, with ATF’s knowledge and approval, would smuggle these weapons across the US-Mexico border and into Mexico, where they were sold (with or without the knowledge of Mexican authorities—still an unanswered question) to members of Mexico’s criminal cartels.

An AK-47 recovered at the murder site of US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry has been identified as one of the rifles ATF agents permitted to be sold to a Mexican straw buyer and ‘illegally’ trafficked into Mexico. There are also links between Fast and Furious and the weapon used to kill ICE Agent Jaime Zapata.

Weapon used to kill ICE Agent Zapata, 32, also linked to Fast & Furious

The original objective, says ATF, was a ‘bag and tag’ operation designed to trace the movement of assault rifles and other weapons sold by US gun dealers into Mexico and the hands of cartel killers.

Ok.

Doesn’t sound good.

But so what? asks the average American.

If Fast and Furious was a legitimate ATF operation, albeit one that was less than successful, what’s the problem?

Here’s the problem

First, no one seems to know if Fast and Furious was, in fact, a legitimate operation, one built and played ‘by the book.’ No one at ATF, or anywhere else, seems to have any paperwork (that they want to share) on the operation.

Second, if one of the weapons that made its way into the hands of a Mexican gunman via the ATF operation was the same weapon used to murder US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, killed last December on US soil, it suggests that, at a very early stage, ATF lost control (to the Mexican military? To Federal Police? To the cartels?) of the operation. Why and how?

Third, if ATF Agent John Dodson had not blown the whistle and revealed that an ATF operation called Fast and Furious was in play, no one could have linked the weapon found at Terry’s murder site to an operation that had to have been initiated and approved by high-levels officials at ATF and DOJ—and that story would have benefited not just Mexico, but proponents of stronger gun regulation here in the US, and in the US government, as well. Win-win.

The straw that broke ATF Agent Dodson’s back? Why he ‘blew the whistle’?

The realization that the weapon used to kill a fellow agent had fallen into the hands of his murderers via an operation sanctioned and implemented by US authorities.

Factor in the ‘rest of the story’ about the attack on Agent Terry and several other Border Patrol agents on December 14 in Peck Canyon, north of Nogales on US soil—ie, that our guys had been instructed by superiors to fire bean bags, as opposed to live ammunition, at their assailants—and you start to understand why even a career ATF agent close to retirement might just throw caution to the wind.

William Lajeuness (a FOX reporter who earned his creds on SW border issues as a reporter for the Brownsville Herald), offers us these details from a May 4 hearing on Capitol Hill:

ATF agent John Dodson. . . told Fox News in March that the tactic of letting guns “walk” was approved by his supervisors in the Phoenix ATF office over the objections of several agents.

How many people have to die?” he [Dodson] said. “We don’t know where those guns are gonna end up. I’ve been here since the beginning. Tell me I didn’t do the things that I did. Tell me you [Holder] didn’t order me to do the things I did. Tell me it didn’t happen.

Congress issued subpoenas to DOJ/ATF on April 13, demanding the receipt by March 31, of any and all documents pertinent to Operation Fast and Furious.

CBS News reports that Dodson was not the only ATF agent worried about Fast and Furious:

One agent called the strategy “insane.” Another said: “We were fully aware the guns would probably be moved across the border to drug cartels where they could be used to kill.”

On the phone, one Project Gunrunner source (who didn’t want to be identified) told us just how many guns flooded the black market under ATF’s watchful eye. “The numbers are over 2,500 on that case by the way. That’s how many guns were sold – including some 50-calibers they let walk.”

But here’s what’s really amazing: as much testimony as we have, and despite threats by Representative Issa (R-Calif) to cite principals at ATF and DOJ for  ‘contempt,’ the investigation into Fast and Furious seems to be going nowhere.

Senior ATF officials, Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, and, most importantly, President Barack Obama have discounted the need for Issa’s subpoenas, contending that an ‘in-house’ investigation by the Office of the Investigator General within Holder’s Department of Justice is all the situation warrants.

They are betting that what the public doesn’t know won’t hurt ATF/DOJ…

Did taxpayer dollars pay for weapons ATF 'sold' to cartels?

Early coverage helps Calderon

When the story about ATF’s Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious broke in March, the mainstream press jumped on it, offering readers a fast and, as we now know, far too easy analysis: federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) had been engaged in an arms trafficking ‘sting’ that facilitated the sale of mostly semi-automatic weapons from US gun shops along the US-Mexico border.

Again, ATF and early press reports describe the operational objective as an attempt to infiltrate the world of illegal arms trafficking along the US-Mexico border, and to nab the bad guys somewhere down the line—the kind of anti-trafficking initiative Mexico has been pushing the US to undertake for some time.

The initial drop-kick coverage of Operation Fast and Furious, which coincided with the visit of President Felipe Calderon to the White House in early March, was, in a number of ways, a boon to the Mexican leader, who has been ‘staying on message’ with three key points, all anti-US, for years.

Calderon blames cartel violence in Mexico on 1) Washington’s lack of financial support and inadequate sharing of US intelligence, 2) the US government’s lax attitude toward cross-border arms trafficking, and 3) the drug habits of the American people.

In other words, send more money south, reinstate the ban on the sale of assault rifles in the US, and give America’s eight million drug addicts what they really need most–treatment and prevention (as opposed to prosecution and jail time).

Hmmmm . . .where have we heard this before? Could this be what they call ‘the intersection of politics and policy’?

An interesting aside: on March 3, Calderon, sharing a podium at the White House with President Obama, appeared unperturbed by the news about the ‘secret’ ATF operation, a surprise given Calderon’s typical ire regarding any US violation of Mexico’s ‘sovereignty,’ and the inviolability of the Brownsville Agreement which prohibits any unilateral US investigations into Mexico’s affairs–please note that Mexico claims it had no knowledge whatsoever of Operation Fast and Furious.

But if that’s so, why has it taken so long, weeks after the ATF ‘intrusion’ became public knowledge, for Mexico to express its official ‘outrage’? Why so slow off the block, when Calderon had a chance to defend Mexico’s ‘national sovereignty’ on March 2 in Washington, DC? Good manners?

Am I the only one who’s confused?

Instead of targeting the breaking news about Fast and Furious and reiterating the terms of the treaty that prohibits the US from initiating this kind of operation inside Mexico without working hand-in-hand with Mexican authorities, Calderon used his White House visit the first week of March to strike back at a WikiLeaks report which suggested ‘widespread corruption among Mexico’s security agencies.’

The leaked cable suggested Mexico’s military had been lax in its response to intelligence relayed from Washington (US tipped Mexican army on activities of important cartel figure, but they did nothing. The Mexican navy was left to act on the intelligence at a later date).

President Obama, standing next to Calderon outside the White House, remained silent. But he did nod. Frequently. The next day, at another White House meeting, the President made a point of praising Calderon’s international leadership and the ‘shared responsibility of the United States for the drug violence’ in Mexico.

The Washington Post followed Obama’s lead (re our ‘shared responsibility’), and while the newspaper was quick to jump on the Fast and Furious as soon as it broke, in a oped published during Calderon’s visit, one Post writer cited the US need to admit its “shame” for its complicity in providing arms to violent Mexican cartels.

Mexico’s president, says the WP article, was dead-on in his criticism of Mexico’s arrogant partner to the north, and it’s time for the US to eat humble pie—after it apologizes to Mexico and toughens its gun-control laws.

ATF, led by senior officials who, along with Eric Holder, share a predilection for tougher gun laws, also fell in behind Presidents Calderon and Obama when the report about Fast and Furious broke, presenting a strong and very silent front to the public.

Let’s not forget that one former ATF Acting Director, Michael Sullivan (an on-the-record advocate for stringent gun control) claimed his investigators were able to trace 90-95 percent of guns found in Mexico to the United States. (Note: the only ‘guns found in Mexico’ to which ATF eventually gains access are weapons we know can be traced back to the US, because they are cherry-picked and hand-delivered to US law enforcement by the Mexican authorities themselves.)

Another of Obama’s erstwhile nominees for ATF Director, Andrew Traver, who has headed ATF’s Chicago Office, is also an on-the-record spokesperson for tougher gun legislation. Speaking to Traver’s nomination, a few months ago, Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) said, “You might as well put an arsonist in charge of the fire department.”

Current Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson is keeping a very low profile–leaving the heavy lifting, we assume, to higher-ups like Eric Holder, who clearly subscribes to the notion that ‘the best defense is a good offense.”

Ok. Let’s get to the point.

You see, the discovery of that AK-47, which may well have been ‘planted’ at the site of Agent Brian Terry’s murder (ask a homicide detective how often a murderer leaves the murder weapon behind at the crime site—never?) had unintended consequences, because the fact is that none of this information—the operational details of Operation Fast and Furious, the fact that ATF was assuring US gun dealers that suspicious and illegal sales to straw buyers were ‘ok,’ part of an official investigation, or the links between that ATF operation and the AK-47 recovered at Terry’s murder site—none of it would  have come to light except  for the impassioned decision of our single career ATF agent, John Dodson, to go public with the facts—after he had registered as an ‘official government whistleblower’ in an attempt to protect himself from agency retaliation.

And that means…

The perfect PR storm–if Dodson hadn’t talked

Dodson’s decision to lay out the connections between the weapon that killed fellow-Agent Brian Terry and an ATF operation he clearly viewed as poorly conceived and improperly (if not illegally) implemented made the current congressional investigation into Fast and Furious inevitable.

But let’s say Agent Dodson hadn’t talked.

Let’s just suppose.

The AK-47 used to gun down fellow federal agent Brian Terry, once recovered, would no doubt have been identified by ATF as a weapon recently purchased from a US gun dealer on the southwest border (ATF would have had, after all, the serial numbers and other identifying documentation).

There would have been no need to mention the existence of any ATF ‘secret sting,’Operation Fast and Furious, or any links between these ATF endeavors and the movement of the weapon used to murder Terry across the US border and into the hands of his Mexican assailants.

US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, 40, gunned down with AK-47 ATF 'sold' to cartels

Instead, the discovery and identification of the AK-47 used to gun down a US agent as one sold by a US gun dealer and then trafficked ‘illegally’ over the border into Mexico and into the possession of the cartels might have created a ‘perfect PR storm,’ neatly reinforcing the arguments put forth, first, by Mexico’s government, which contends there would be no gang violence in that country if the US didn’t supply gangs with guns; second, by higher-ups in the US government who favor tougher gun-control laws and non-intervention in Mexico (DOJ and the Obama Administration); and, third, by the public anti-gun lobby in America.

Indeed, here’s how that story would have read: Mexico’s claim re the US fueling cartel violence is right, and worse yet, weapons trafficked from the US are no longer being used just to murder Mexicans, but to kill Americans as well.

We’re killing our own guys.

ATF stonewalls

How fast can we say “Pulitzer Prize”?

But what if Fast and Furious was a ‘rogue operation,’ a let’s get together, guys, and just do it kind of undertaking?

Then ATF, the Attorney General and even the President of the United States may be staring down a long barrel of their own construction—a three-year Weaponsgate initiated and implemented by a US law enforcement agency that accomplished little else but the provisioning of Mexican cartels with more than 1800 assault rifles sold to them by gun dealers in the US who were, in turn, assured by ATF that this was not, in fact, illegal, but part of a ‘secret operation.’

Of course, if you follow this line of thinking to the end, you find yourself in possession of some very serious ‘what-if’s,’ threads which, if Congress decides to pull them, could unravel the careers of senior ATF officials, the Attorney General, and even the President of the United States.

That prospect isn’t stopping Representative Issa (R-Calif), who minced no words at the May 4 congressional hearing about what he sees as obstructionist ploys on the part of ATF/DOJ to escape accountability for an operation insiders say might, in a worst-case scenario, implicate the White House and DOJ in a ‘secret,’ politically-motivated US-Mexico agreement via which the US played a part in supplying concrete evidence for Calderon’s claim that US guns are fueling cartel violence. Did we give them the guns just so they could be counted?

The response to this kind of scenario could range from career-shattering scandal to criminal indictment and anywhere in between.

At the very least, the evidence already in possession of the House Oversight Committee might give the families of Agents Brian Terry and Jaime Zapata  a starting place for legal enquiries.

William Lajeuness reports the exchange on Capitol Hill between Issa and Holder was both combative and explicit:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) went after Attorney General Eric Holder for refusing to answer questions and subpoenas for documents that implicate who approved the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives project that allowed guns purchased illegally in U.S. to be smuggled into Mexico on behalf of the drug cartels with the knowledge and consent of the ATF.

“We’re not looking at straw buyers, Mr. Attorney General, we’re looking at you,” Issa said. “We’re looking at you, we’re looking at your key people who knew or should’ve known about this.”

Holder shot back.

“The notion that somehow or another that this Justice Department is responsible for those deaths, that assertion is offensive,” Holder said, referring to the death of American Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

“What if it’s accurate, Mr. Attorney General?” Issa responded. “What am I going to tell Agent Terry’s mother about how he died at the hands of a gun that was videotaped as it was being sold to a straw purchaser fully expecting it to end up in the hands of drug cartels?”

Holder responded. “We’ll have to see exactly what happened with regard to the guns that are an issue there.”

Now, when Holder says “We’ll have to see exactly what happened with regard to the guns”—the ‘we’ he’s talking about, again, is his own organization—DOJ, whose in-house Office of the Inspector General (the same folks we suspect might have been involved in the construction of Fast and Furious) is at this very moment conducting a ‘rigorous,’ internal investigation into the situation.

Repeat—President Barack Obama agrees with his Attorney General that the DOJ ‘in-house’ investigation into its own operations is sufficient.

He’s standing by his man.

Indeed, the President has also encouraged the top Democrat on Issa’s House Oversight Committee, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md), to make an appeal to Chairman Issa—to be reasonable and ‘to sit down with Justice’ to talk about the ATF documents for which the Committee has delivered subpoenas, but which, almost a month past the deadline, have not yet been delivered.

Critics, including ATF whistleblowers, say OIG/DOJ and the White House have one priority in regard to Justice’s internal investigation: damage control.

Crisis sliding off public radar?

Was Fast & Furious a legitimate undercover investigation or a 'rogue operation'?

The standoff between Issa’s committee and the Attorney General is an edgy situation.

But oddly enough, the situation has not fully captured the attention of the press or the public.

Perhaps Representative Issa (R-Calif) and his staff seem are confused about the questions they should be asking?

Or maybe they’re unaware of the danger that ATF’s stonewalling presents—like it or not, there are standard ripostes, “I’ don’t know,” “We’re working on it” and “Let’s pretend it didn’t happen,” that generally signal a cover-up is in the works.

Ask any experienced law enforcement investigator to explain the difference, in terms of efficacy, between obtaining a search warrant when you need to find concrete evidence quickly, and issuing a subpoena.

For all practical purposes, a subpoena is nothing more than ‘an order to shred’

And that’s what critics suggest is going on at DOJ and ATF—tactical stalls designed to allow time for the destruction of documents and the elimination of incriminating evidence, something that may be happening right now, as the House Oversight Committee continues to stew.

What Representative Issa (R-Calif) and Senator Grassley (R-Iowa) want and need to find out is who authorized Fast and Furious, and if the process by which the operation was authorized and implemented was “by-the-book’—or outside ATF’s legal authorities.

We also need to know why Fast and Furious materialized—the catalyst, the practical and political motives driving the initiative, and the authors of an undertaking, that from its conception through its implementation to its sad and confused conclusion, appears to have become an ‘orphan enterprise,’ with no one claiming responsibility or, in some cases, even knowledge of its existence.

Think about that.

Think NAFTA, the financial boon to US banks catering to ‘high net-worth’ Mexicans, the ideological bent and votes of anti-gun activists in the US, and the bend-over-backward machinations of US decision-makers to get past Mexico’s problems and on to its economic ‘potential.’

Then do some reverse-engineering: if the upshot of Fast and Furious, the endgame, was to provide Mexico with thousands of weapons that could be quickly and unequivocally traced back to US gun dealers, might one not assume, with no evidence to the contrary, that this was the operation’s intent?

Serious accusations, to be sure.

Let Eric Holder prove them wrong.

A less cynical analysis, of course, might characterize Operation Fast and Furious as a bungled attempt (another one) on the part of ATF/DOJ to assuage the Mexican government by initiating a “tag and bag’ investigation that aimed to ‘track’ the progress of assault weapons from their purchase point (US gun dealers along the border), through their ‘illegal’ transport across the US-Mexico border, to their final destination—cartel gang members in Mexico who would, at some point, and in some not-yet-determined manner, be identified and apprehended.

The evidence, if any is ever produced, could point either way. But, believe me, we’re way beyond any “he said, she said” scenarios.

If Issa’s Committee doesn’t press on, if investigative journalism doesn’t do its job, then why the weapon used to murder a US federal agent happened to be one supplied (illegally?) by US law enforcement to Mexican gunmen may remain a largely unasked and unanswered question.

For Brian Terry’s family, that doesn’t sound like an option. And the rest of us, I’m thinking—millions of US taxpayers—have a right to know if the people we pay to protect us are really doing something else. (Question: where did ATF find the money, let’s guess 1m, that it used to purchase the heavy weaponry the agency ‘sold’ to Mexican cartels? Was it taxpayers’ money pulled out of ATF’s official ‘buy fund’?)

Rogue operation?

An operation like Fast and Furious doesn’t just happen. Not if it’s legal.

A Group One Undercover Investigative Operation, and Fast and Furious fits that bill, would first require departmental approval from ATF and, second, approval from its parent organization, DOJ—plans and proposals, with mission, targets and specific outcomes ready for scrutiny.

That means signatures—a senior executive at ATF, and a John Hancock from no less than an Assistant Attorney General at Justice.

After Fast And Furious gets a green light from ATF and DOJ, the same fully fleshed-out proposal, the power-point presentation and the agency-department signoff travel upwards (step three) to what’s called an Undercover Operational Proposal Committee, a body composed of senior executives from every US enforcement agency—Justice, ATF, DEA, DHS, ICE, FBI, Secret Service et al—any department or agency whose interests might be affected or intersected by the operation.

Committee approval doesn’t happen easily.

If the Committee says yea, as opposed to nay, it’s because every agency member of the Committee has been convinced that ATF’s operation doesn’t imperil its own ‘turf,’ and/or that the ATF op won’t leave it (ICE, DEA, and so on…) holding the bag in front of a congressional hearing or a federal judge (…And why exactly did you surrender jurisdictional authority, Madam Director?).

The members of the Committee might also nix the proposal of a ‘competing’ agency if someone thinks the plan is too good, an op they recognize as one they should have thought of themselves. Kill it for ATF, and “we’ll replicate the operation under our own departmental umbrella down the road.”

Yes, our nation’s finest compete among themselves, all the time, for operational clout and glory.

If the Operational Proposal Committee gives an agency, in this case, ATF, the go-ahead, it’s still not over.

Every six months, ATF would be required to reconvene with that same group of ‘unfriendly friendlies,’ to report on the success and progress of Fast and Furious, how close it was conforming to mission objectives, to financial perimeters, to deadlines and other performance markers.

Now, let’s consider.

What are the chances that an operation like Fast and Furious, whose aim is to send operational assault rifles to criminal cartels in Mexico (with no apparent guarantee of mission success?), via ‘illegal’ sales to Mexican straw buyers, would be approved by an Undercover Operational Proposal Committee? Zip?

Well, wait—that’s step three.

Smoking gun

Back up–let’s weigh in. Do we think Fast and Furious was in fact approved in the earliest stages at the agency level, by an Assistant US Attorney General, by ATF’s Acting Director, or by his boss, Eric Holder? Now, there’s a question for the House Oversight Committee….

I don’t know—but I suspect there is, indeed, an ATF signature on a piece of paper that may or may not, at this juncture, exist (return to definition of ‘subpoena’—ie, ‘order to shred’).

A few weeks ago, word on the street was that something resembling a copy of an MOU, signed in 2008 by reps from Mexico’s Justice Department and by senior ATF officials at the US Embassy in Mexico City, an agreement that may have jumpstarted Fast and Furious, does in fact exist, and was making the rounds at DHS-HQ in Washington, DC.

Fox News carried this report on May 4:

In an equally explosive disclosure, a law enforcement source tells Fox News, that ATF undercover agents were acting as the straw buyers and purchasing guns using government-issued false identifications and then providing those guns to cartel traffickers to gain credibility in their undercover roles. In that capacity, the ATF “provided 2, 50 cal. machine guns to traffickers that are loose in Mexico and unaccounted for,” the source said.

Yet, the ATF and the Department of Justice did not shut down the operation. [ Click here for CBS News report ]

The House Oversight Committee has obtained additional documents that show:

– U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis Burke (a senior policy analyst in the Clinton White House) was in full agreement with the investigative strategy of allowing the transfer of firearms from gun stores to straw buyers.

– Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer (who, incidentally, defended former President Clinton in the 1999 Senate Impeachment trial) knew about and even approved a wiretap application for suspects targeted in Operation Fast and Furious over a year ago. Issa on Wednesday released documents from Assistant Attorney General Breuer, head of the Criminal Division and a former White House counsel to President Bill Clinton that show he approved Operation Fast and Furious wiretaps.

A second document shows that Burke supported the strategy “to allow the transfer of firearms to continue to take place … in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators who would continue to operate and illegally traffic firearms to Mexican [Drug Trafficking Organizations].”

What else might a document like this tell us? It could undermine Mexico’s claims it knew nothing about the gun walking op (per the terms of the Brownsville Agreement), and the memo might, in fact, implicate not just ATF, but also Mexico’s military and its government in the construction of a plan that, in the end, benefited no one but Mexico’s drug cartels.

Imagine: ATF participates in the (illegal) transport of 1800+ assault rifles and two .50 caliber weapons into Mexico with knowledge and support of Mexican authorities and those weapons are then sold, even hand-delivered, to Mexican cartels . . .

Did ATF sell .50 caliber weapons to cartels?

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Impossible? Who knows?

Maybe we should be looking for a shadowy figure lurking in an underground garage off Mass Ave. Or thinking about Calderon’s strangely muted response to news of the gun walking op on March 2-3. Or wondering why no one’s taken Eric Holder or Kenneth Melson to the woodshed over an undercover op Mexico keeps saying it knew nothing about.

Or maybe we should just keep our eye on the ball: if certain ICE or DHS officials suddenly enjoy new international career opportunities, (promotions to high-paying postings in foreign capitals), via recommendations from the Mexican government, the House Oversight Committee may want to ask why.

Silence is golden, especially when you believe your career can outlive a request for subpoenas.

Back to step three: signoff from the Undercover Operational Committee…

Now, this is a different can of worms—and, I’m happy to say, not nearly as brain-bending as the ‘riddle wrapped in the mystery inside the enigma’ dilemma we encounter when we think about who in ATF and DOJ signed-off on the original gun walking plan.

Why?

Because inquiries into the decisions of a multi-agency undercover committee take us, mercifully, outside the maneuvers of the Praetorian Guard, past the close-hold machinations of an inner circle that insiders say may be operating, in this case, within ATF/DOJ.

Here’s what I’m thinking—that when ATF told reporters, in early March, that Fast and Furious was a ‘secret’ arms trafficking operation (as opposed to ‘covert’), maybe they weren’t just whistling Dixie.

The question is, ‘secret’ from whom?

The notion that the plans and proposals for Fast and Furious made it past a multi-agency law enforcement committee is hard to believe—but, again, it is just as difficult to believe that senior officials at a lower level—at ATF/DOJ—were not in on the plan.

Melson, Holder, and Obama stand before us—pawn, knight, king.

Take a moment.

If this game goes south, in which order do you figure the pieces will fall?

What does Washington think?

Depends on who’s talking.

But I’ve heard rumblings, a sneaking suspicion that a coalition of like-minded individuals, a group whose various interests might be served by a shared agenda, gave a subtle nod to a plan whose existence was never intended to be acknowledged, particularly by men like Senior ATF Agent John Dodson in the agency’s Phoenix office—apparently the operational heart of Fast and Furious.

We don’t need no stinkin’ Committee?

Maybe.

Again, whose interests stood to be served?

Mexico’s, certainly.

The Obama Administration’s? Yes.

The anti-gun lobby? Of course.

ATF’s—the “little agency” with a big (once-in-an-agency-lifetime) opportunity? the career prospects of ambitious ATF agents in the Phoenix office?

There’s a comment block directly under this post.

The Export Control Act, ICE, and the Brownsville Agreement

Of course, there’s more.

If Fast and Furious was a ‘legal’ undercover operation, one sanctioned by agency/departmental and Committee approval, the ATF agents running it would still have had to do a fair share of hop, skip, and jumping to make it work—through strict State Department regs involving the Export Control Act; across agency ‘turf’ owned, not by ATF, but by ICE; and over a treaty, the Brownsville Agreement, which would have prohibited ATF from mounting an unilateral undercover operation involving Mexican nationals—without the knowledge and involvement of the Mexican government.

Whew.

You still with me?

Did Clinton issue exemptions to ATF agents?

I hope so, because now we’re talking Hillary Clinton, the Big Girl who runs the US Department of State.

The US State Department ‘owns’ a piece of legislation known as the Export Control Act, which prohibits the sale of certain deadly weapons and serious military hardware to foreign nationals without the express consent and the issuance of an exemption from State. Generally, in a case involving cross-border trafficking of these weapons, it is ICE which is authorized to oversee any operation or investigation involving such exemptions.

This means that even in a case where ATF and DOJ officials had signed off on Fast and Furious, even in a case where a multi-agency Operational Committee might have approved the gun walking op and ATF’s request to appropriate jurisdictional authority belonging to ICE, ATF agents would have still been compelled by law to obtain an exemption re the Export Control Act from the US State Department—each and every time they ok’d the sale of one or a bundle of weapons from a US gun dealer to a Mexican straw buyer (as part of a ‘secret’ operation).

Every time.

And in every case. (How often do you think ATF would have had to go to State for exemptions/permissions to ‘walk’ 1800+ weapons across the US-Mexico border?)

Now, that would mean that Hillary Clinton, or a high-level State Department representative with the authority to act for her, knew all the details re Operation Fast and Furious.

It would also mean that, with that reassuring knowledge in hand, the State Department ok’d every ATF request for an exemption to the Export Control Act each time ATF convinced a gun dealer on the US-Mexico border to let his weapons go . . . that it was not only ‘ok’ to sell to Mexican straw buyers, but almost patriotic.

This was an “official ATF operation,” after all.

Do we think that Hillary Clinton’s State Department bought into this arrangement?

Is that why no one from State has emerged to set the House Oversight Committee straight?

Who ‘owns’ Fast and Furious?

Did Napolitano surrender DHS "turf"?

Then we have the question of ‘jurisdiction,’ moot of course, if ATF/DOJ took the proposal for Fast and Furious before a multi-agency committee and got its approval.

But let’s pretend that didn’t happen.

ATF has no jurisdictional/legal authority to run a covert arms trafficking investigation—this responsibility belongs to ICE, which operates within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

So, how did ATF grab a ball rightfully belonging to an ‘opposing team’ (I’ve worked for Customs/ICE and know first-hand how unlikely the agency is to surrender its ‘turf’ without a fight) and run with it–for three years, no less?

And without anyone at ICE/DHS knowing the ATF operation was in play, or anyone from ICE/DHS emerging after-the-fact to deny or acknowledge the legitimacy of Fast and Furious?

A little history

ATF began its life as a specialized tax agency within IRS/Treasury, and its primary mission was, and still is, to ensure that appropriate US taxes are collected on the sale of alcohol, tobacco and firearms, and that these monies make their way, along with other tax revenues, into the general fund.

After 911, ATF, still a part of Treasury, jumped ship to avoid transfer to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where ATF management feared its status and mission would be further marginalized.

Then opportunity knocked. ATF wangled a new home as a small organization within the Department of Justice (this is important–hold on), but its role, taxman to both large and small purveyors of liquor, tobacco, and guns, remained unchanged. What also remains unchanged, it seems, is the agency’s desire to expand its mission and its importance in the larger scheme.

ATF’s big break seems to have materialized in 2008, when Project Gunrunner first appears on the radar screen.

Critics suggest that a seamless chain of command and communication from Obama to Holder might have made ATF the agency of choice in a situation where the goal was to assuage Calderon’s concern (or possibly reinforce his claim?) regarding the ‘substantial, on-going flow of US weapons’ into Mexico.

Involving DHS/ICE in an attempt to direct ICE to the same end would have been far more complicated, success less than guaranteed.

Too many bureaucratic speed bumps.

The operation would have been more likely to have garnered the attention of Congress and the media. An in-house operation, an Obama-Holder-Calderon production, might have looked like the best way to go.

Of course, it had to work.

But how?

Obama tells Calderon US has 'shared responsibility' for drug violence in Mexico

If Fast and Furious was a cooperative venture with Mexico, we should know that. Mexico says ‘no,’ and while a press release on the ATF website noted Mexico-US cooperation re Project Gunrunner, the agency has not admitted a link between the subordinate investigation, Fast and Furious, and Mexico. Either the US cooperated with Mexico on Fast and Furious, or ATF undertook a unilateral ‘secret’ investigation involving Mexico’s internal affairs and violated the Brownsville Agreement.

What’s going on here? The American people have a need to know.

Why?

Because any evidence that the US did, in fact, sign such an agreement with Mexico, authorizing ATF, in cooperation with Mexican authorities, to implement the gun-walking ‘sting’ that provided Mexican gunman with killing tools used to fire on and murder US agents would corroborate the intent and involvement, at the highest levels, of ATF officials, of the Attorney General (either Holder or his representatives would have had to sign off on the operation), and of the President of the United States—who, as Holder’s supervisor, must be held accountable for the decisions and actions of his subordinates.

It is difficult, as well, to believe that Eric Holder would have undertaken such a risky endeavor, such a politically sensitive gamble, without a discussion having occurred between Holder and Obama before the implementation of the ATF operation. The stakes, in terms of US-Mexico relations, would have just been too high.

This should be the focus of the investigation conducted by the House Oversight Committee.

Mexico tolerates no intrusion into national sovereignty

The Brownsville Agreement, a treaty that carries the weight of law, was a bone the Clinton Administration tossed to the Mexican government in 1998 after a covert money laundering investigation dubbed Operation Casablanca uncovered the involvement of Mexico’s Minister of Defense and threatened to implicate other  highly placed government officials.

President Zedillo, a close associate of the jeopardized Defense Minister, expressed outrage that the US would permit Customs to run an undercover operation targeting the cross-border transfer of billions in drug dollars without informing and including top officials in the Mexican government.

The US had invaded ‘Mexico’s sovereignty,’ offended the powerful, and thrown a wrench into the smooth workings of the US-Mexico banking partnership.

The US rushed to make things right, shutting down Operation Casablanca (which quickly became ‘a rogue operation’), placating Mexican leaders loaded with NAFTA-chips, and shuttling Attorney General Janet Reno down to Brownsville, Texas to meet with her counterpart, Mexico’s Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar.

There Reno and Madrazo signed the treaty responsible, even today, for keeping US agents in Mexico both unarmed and at arms length from evidence that might suggest anyone other than ‘the usual (cartel) suspects’ might be accountable for Mexico’s violent crime spree.

So it is inconceivable that neither acting ATF Acting Director Melson, his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder (the head of DOJ), nor his boss, President Barack Obama could be ignorant of the restrictions the Brownsville Agreement imposes on US investigations involving Mexico.

Let’s say Mexico and ATF were partners in Fast and Furious (remember, Mexico says ‘no’).

If Mexico knew, that means that  Mexico’s military and federal police were most likely involved in the chain of events that led to the murder of US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry—a murder during which the killer deliberately threw down what he must have known was an AK-47 obtained from a US gun dealer.

It’s a perfect circle, or would have been, except for the whistle blowing efforts of ATF Agent John Dodson.

Did ICE (and Janet Napolitano) know about it? The odds say no. Why would ICE/DHS surrender such valuable ‘turf’?

Did the State Department (and Hillary Cllinton) know about it? Again, probably not. I cannot believe Madam Secretary would get involved if ATF had not obtained approval for its operation from the interagency Operational Committee, or if the required 6-month reviews of the operation, which would have reassured Clinton of its success, were not forthcoming.

Then why don’t these agencies step forward to ‘disown’ Fast and Furious?

It’s only a guess but I suspect that none of the agencies (State, ICE, DHS, etc.) that might have been ignored or mistreated via this ‘secret ATF operation’ are ready,  no matter how miffed they might be, to throw stones. Napolitano, Clinton and the rest, do, after all, work for Obama. They’re political appointees who are not going to abandon ship while they think it may still be possible to bail incoming out of the boat.

But what about Holder and Melson?

Will the White House succeed in holding the line for its team?

Could be. But sometime before that, perhaps we’ll get an answer to what I think may be the most important question in this case: did ATF end up working, directly or indirectly, with Mexican officials, Mexico’s military, the Mexican Federal Police and/or the Mexican cartels during the implementation of what has been described as an ‘cross-border sting’?

Was ATF a willing or unwitting collaborator with Mexico’s criminal actors, with the gunmen who murdered our own agents?

Mexico’s carefully calibrated responses to the exposure of Fast and Furious, its pr-savvy reactions, and past experience suggest this could be the case. And veterans of the US-Mexico drug wars, drug enforcement agents and intelligence operatives will all tell you what Mexico and the US government continue to deny: that nothing moves across the US-Mexico border without the knowledge and consent of the Mexican authorities, Mexico’s military and Mexico’s Federal Police. Or without these players getting their ‘cut.’

What do you think?

It’s a complicated story, with an out-of-control ending, but it looks like Washington, in this case, may have gone too far to accommodate Mexico City. And  the White House may have cut too many corners in the process.

It’s time to start connecting the dots.

We have an ATF operation that no one in Washington will acknowledge as ‘legal’ or  ‘legitimate.’ We have no evidence that the operation was conducted ‘by the book.’

We know that Fast and Furious facilitated the sale of at least 1800 semiautomatic weapons to cartel gang members, and we know that at least several of these weapons were used, deliberately it seems, to murder our own agents. We know that these weapons were thrown down at the scene of the crime by cartel criminals.

Why?

I can think of no answer except one: that the AK-47 used to gun down US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was deliberately left at his murder site (by whom? Cartel members? Mexican federal police?) to corroborate, for the US and international media, and for the world, Calderon’s claim that weapons illegally trafficked from the US are fueling the violence in Mexico. Wag that dog.

No matter.

Because whoever threw down that weapon made a mistake: he underestimated the courage of Brian Terry’s colleagues in US law enforcement, and the need of ATF Agent John Dodson, to tell the truth.

The only question now for Representative Issa’s Committee and the American people is—do we have the guts to listen?

 
  • TL671

    How a writer for a blog with the words organized crime in the name would not know why criminals would drop the weapons at the scene is a little odd, as it is a time tested mafia hitman tactic. If you leave the gun at the scene, it is much harder, if not impossible to connect it to the shooter, as opposed to being found with it on your person. As for the rest of your article, I would like to thank you for the in depth explanation of the corruption rampant in this administration. I had a very good idea that this operation was approved from the top down, but had no idea just how many inside this administration had blood on their hands.

    • http://www.globalorganizedcrime.foreignpolicyblogs.com Kathleen Millar

      The AK-47s left at the scene of Brian Terry’s murder bore serial numbers ATF had already recorded in its database as part of Fast and Furious. Can we assume that the Mexican gunmen who killed the US Border Patrol Agent knew the weapon they used was one ATF had persuaded a US gun dealer to sell to an ATF informant/strawbuyer — ATF knowing the weapon would be trafficked into Mexico (illegally) and returned to US agents only after it had been used in the commission of a crime? Most likely. If a garden-variety shooter (as the majority of murderers are) leaves a weapon with identifiable markings at a crime scene, that weapon can and will be traced. ‘Untraceable’ weapons, such as the one provided to Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in ‘The Godfather,’ of course, are best left behind so that any debris, casings, spent rounds, etc. cannot be traced back (via ballistic analysis) to the weapon from which they issued. Thanks for your comment!

  • Pingback: Project “Disarm America”–the scandal which could bring down Obama | CrusaderRabbit

  • ragtop

    Certainly, this must fall at the feet of the administration. There are far too many connections for all to claim ignorance of the operation. At best, it is an overt attempt at subverting the second ammendment. At worst, it is an undeclared war against Mexico and those Americans who live in or near border towns.

    This is, quite simply, another ‘ends justify the means’ example of our executive branch trampling the constitution and the rights and lives of Americans.

  • usmc77

    Man, if ever there was a conspiracy to undermine our 2A & our Constitution, this is it!!!

  • Joseph Zernik, PhD, Human Rights Alert (NGO)

    ATF ‘Gun Walking’ Kenneth Melson – Key Figure in Corruption of the Justice System
    ____
    News regarding the imminent departure of Deputy Director Kenneth Melson in the wake of the ATF ‘gun walking’ scandal may be premature. Convoluted relationships between President Obama, FBI, and US Department of Justice are part of corruption of the US justice system that has reached the level of an unprecedented constitutional crisis…
    LINKS:
    [1] 11-07-06 PRESS RELEASE: ATF ‘Gun Walking’ Kenneth Melson – Key Figure in Corruption of the Justice System
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/59417750/

  • smokey climber

    If this operation has been going on for 3 years, and if it is an offshoot of gunrunner, then didn’t it start under Bush? This would mean that the op had DOJ approval before Obama was in office and before Holder was AG.

  • bob

    You are a true patriot to this country! The main street media needs to get on board with this terrible act of attacking our second amendment.public servants are held to a higher moral standard. They are accountable to the people who they represent.every American should be outraged by this corruption and demand that charges be brought forward and found guilty.human beings were killed!!this corruption is not about democrats or republicans it’s about having respect for human life! People died because of this program.thank you again for your service to this country

Author

Kathleen Millar
Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.

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