Foreign Policy Blogs

Congress takes aim at Holder, ATF, Mexico

Congress confirms it.Calderon was right about the US sending lethal weapons to Mexican cartels, only it wasn’t the work of US gun dealers gone wild on the southwest border—it’s been the US government itself, the Department of Justice and ATF, that’s spent the last few years arming the same criminals, murderers, and cartel assassins we’re supposed to be fighting.

Makes you wonder just which side of the drug war we’re on….

Congress takes aim at Holder, ATF, Mexico
Did ATF let .50 cal sniper rifles ‘walk’ into Mexico?

A June 14 report prepared for Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif), Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform lays it all out: for roughly the past three years, via an operation tagged Fast and Furious, the people who run ATF and their higher-ups in Eric Holder’s Department of Justice have stood by, watched and even encouraged American gun dealers along the SW border to allow multiple illegal sales of AK-47 variants, Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles. 38 caliber rifles and FN five-seveNs to straw buyers (working for ATF) whose intention, known well in advance, was to traffic the weapons into Mexico for resale to cartel gunmen.

Make no mistake. We’re talking about the US selling deadly firepower to the same drug thugs who’ve already killed more people–almost 40,000–than the US has lost during the entire course of our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And that’s not all. As the report makes clear, there was no ATF plan in place to interdict the weapons (1700+) before they disappeared into Mexico’s criminal underworld. There were no tracking devices, no GPS attached to any of the weapons that might have allowed US law enforcement to follow the guns. There was no way to retrieve any of these deadly, fully operational weapons before they could be used to murder civilians and our own federal agents on both sides of the border (the phrase ATF used was ‘collateral damage’). Indeed, the next time the US government expected to see these weapons, if at all, would only be after Mexican authorities recovered the guns at various homicide scenes and sent them back to ATF to be counted and identified as rifles recently purchased from US gun dealers. The buck, it appears, was meant to stop there.

I know. It sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it?

Why would ATF undertake such a boneheaded enterprise?

July 26th Hearings Focus on Holder, Mexico

Issa’s Committee has another chance to ask this same question on Tuesday, July 26, when a whole new slew of DOJ/ATF actors arrives on Capitol Hill to talk about the whys–the motive–as well as the whos. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Mexican government are still denying any knowledge or involvement, and if their stories change, all bets are off.

Law enforcement insiders say there’s no way ATF could have sent 1700 weapons into Mexico without the Attorney General’s knowledge and approval: the initiation of an undercover cross-border investigation by any US law enforcement agency turns on strict authorization requirements–approval by the Department head, in this case, Holder, his Deputies, and various Assistant AG’s.

At this point, any inhouse documents ATF may have possessed–documents which Issa and Grassley might have used to trace the evolution of the operation and its chain of command, have probably disappeared. But the financial documentation relevant to Fast and Furious, the requests for money, approval for wire transfers, operational expenses, etc., should still be there: it’s not good to misplace the underlying narrative of an operation, but no one goes to jail. Not the case if you obliterate the money trail.

Fast and Furious would have depended as well on additional signoffs at periodic review meetings by an interdepartmental undercover operations review board, an assembly of other enforcement agencies like the FBI, DEA, ICE and folks from the Office of Export Control, in case the ATF operation ran into overlap, or jurisdictional issues somewhere down the road.

We know now from press reports that the FBI and DEA were linked to Fast and Furious, a tip-off that at least initially, ATF must have followed protocol and run its secret op by a review board of some kind–the involvement of other agencies suggests information-sharing.

Whether ATF came back to a formal inter-agency review board every six months to report on the operation’s progress is still an unanswered question (as well as a good one). It’s a pretty sure bet as well, given the deafening silence coming out of Foggy Bottom, that the folks in charge of Fast and Furious did not–let me repeat–did not go to State and obtain the special export certificates they needed to send multiple shipments of deadly weapons across the US border into Mexico.

If you ask Hillary Clinton what that means, she–no wait, her spokesperson might tell you that unless ATF obtained export certificates from State to attach to every shipment of illegal weapons they had a hand in sending south (weapons purchased with taxpayer money taken from the ATF ‘buy find’), the agency has violated the Export Control Act–not once, but many times. These are serious, criminal violations.

A botched operation or a successful political ploy? 

It doesn’t seem to matter. So far, the press and the public appear to be giving ATF the benefit of the doubt, referring to Fast and Furious as a ‘botched investigation.’


Most Americans, despite the shock delivered to our collective confidence by other stunts filed away under FUBAR–Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Clinton’s perjury-producing dalliance with a White House intern–believe their government is, if not always right, still sufficiently right-thinking to distinguish between that which is morally and legally acceptable, and that which is not.

In Europe, of course, they call it simplistic thinking–things are either black or white. Here we call it knowing the difference between right and wrong.  Not for us the delicious slide into moral stupor. Forget Berlusconi and his nonchalant attitude toward boom-boom rooms or presidential penchants for teenage hookers. Focus instead on the image of IMF Chief Strauss-Kahn being pulled out of his overstuffed business-class seat on Air France moments before takeoff and handed an orange jumpsuit. Qui est votre papa maintenant? 

Ordinary Americans still believe there’s a line, and that sometimes even the proud and powerful have to walk it. We can also be pretty tolerant, products ourselves of too many second-chance generations not to believe in reprieves. And we want to give our leaders the benefit of the doubt, not because we think they’re incapable of wrongdoing, but because we tend to believe that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, that best laid plans go awry, and that there’s a difference between poor management and stone cold bad.

So when, as was the case with Fast and Furious, our supervisors tell us that they expect innocent people may be killed in the execution of what we clearly perceive to be a flawed investigative strategy, or when our bosses tell us ‘you’ve got to scramble some eggs’ to get results – meaning look the other way when people start getting killed—we’re stunned. Disbelieving.

But this is exactly what happened with Fast and Furious. Believe it or not.

Conclusion? To dismiss the investigation as merely ‘a botched operation’ could be a mistake. Denial, delusion or a jaundiced nod to realpolitik—it doesn’t matter how we maneuver to avoid the logical conclusions to which the facts of this matter lead us, because in the end, the DOJ/ATF version of this story simply doesn’t add up.

Consider. Even ‘bungled operations’ begin by paying homage to the rules. According to US statutes, this means offering solid credentials to authorizing committees, presenting concrete goals and objectives, and clearly describing a credible endgame, achievable over a reasonable period of time.

Fast and Furious did none of these things.Congress takes aim at Holder, ATF, Mexico

It was a ‘tag and bag’ operation that at no time attempted to trace or ‘tag’ the guns it ‘walked’ across the border and then allowed to go missing—an operation that succeeded in ‘bagging’ one measly suspect during its entire operational lifetime.

There were no investigative mechanisms in place that might have allowed agents to penetrate complex arms trafficking organizations in Mexico or the US. No plan for the eventual interdiction of the deadly weapons sent into Mexico, or mention of alternative methods of interdiction to be employed later down the line. ATF agents in the field were told not to interfere with straw buyers, not to arrest them, not to intercept the weapons these criminal front men had purchased to smuggle into Mexico. Read the report.

Here’s what ATF Agent John Dodson told the Congressional Committee investigating Fast and Furious:

Every time we voiced concerns [about letting guns ‘walk’ with no plan to interdict]…we were told to stand down. And this is so hard to convey because I understand you guys were not there, you didn’t live it. But watching a guy go into the same gun store every day buying another 15 or 20 AK-47 variants or five or ten Draco pistols or FN Five-seveNs…guys that don’t have a job…walking in here spending $27,000 for three Barrett .50 calibers…and you are sitting there every day and you can’t do anything…It was like, are we taking this guy? No. Why not? Because it is not part of the plan, or it is not part of the case. [Agent L] said no. Dave said no. [Agent E] said no. What are we doing here? What the hell is the purpose of this? I have no idea. This went on every day.

The ATF agents in the Phoenix office remained confused. But then, in December, 2010, two AK-47s were recovered from a crime scene in Southern Arizona, an engagement between US Border Patrol Agents firing beanbags, per the instructions of their superiors, and Mexican gunmen armed with powerful assault rifles. Why beanbags? Because Washington was concerned about blowback from Mexico should US Border Patrol agents injure or kill Mexican nationals. Even when the other guys have live ammo.

Mexico’s laws also prohibit US enforcement agents on Mexican soil from carrying weapons–when ICE Agent Jaime Zapata was gunned down by cartel killers in 2011, both he and his partner were traveling, unarmed, in a US government car.

US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed by a Mexican gunman armed with an AK-47 trafficked into Mexico via Fast and Furious, and it was that fact which drove Senior ATF Agent John Dodson, a field agent in the Phoenix office, to make a life-changing decision. John Dodson stepped out of line, taking several colleagues with him, as he filed for official Whistleblower Protection and made his way to Capitol Hill. Without Dodson’s testimony, Fast and Furious would have remained an under-the-radar operation, its funding requirements buried in a  larger umbrella appropriations request.

Fast and Furious–a wild success?

Question: what if Fast and Furious was something other than a ‘failed and reckless ATF investigation’? That’s how Representative Issa has described it, and he’s not an ATF fan. But from Calderon’s perspective, and from the perspective of senior Administration officials–Obama, Holder and ATF’s leadership included–from the perspective of anyone who favors stronger gun control and who endorses the idea that the US is to blame for violence in Mexico, Fast and Furious qualifies as a huge success.

Could Fast and Furious have been  a political ploy?  A partisan offensive, perhaps, wrapped in enforcement garb, designed to pleasure our NAFTA-neighbor to the south and bolster Mexico’s claim that violence along the SW border was fueled by US gundealers willing to do anything to satisfy their greed….

The idea is gaining speed.

Intentionally or not, Fast and Furious made it happen–Calderon had the evidence he needed to blame America first; advocates for stronger gun regulation within the government, and that means Obama, Holder, and senior leadership within DOJ/ATF, were feeling good, and single-issue voters (guns) still had a reason to believe.

This is a serious accusation, to suggest that our leaders may have attempted to advance a partisan agenda in the guise of an enforcement operation–using millions in taxpayer money. But it’s happened before.

Tell me I’m wrong.

But when you piece the puzzle together–the absence of genuine investigative strategies, the lack of goals, objectives and a credible endgame, the ‘secret’ nature of the operation from Congress and the American public, the hidden funding, the warning to frontline ATF agents to stand down and shut up, DOJ’s refusal to submit requested documents to Congress even after the issuance of subpoenas, DOJ/ATF stonewalling, and the denials and coverup that continue even today–well, you get the picture.

It isn’t pretty.

Especially when you factor in the deaths of BP Agent Brian Terry, ICE Agent Jaime Zapata, and an increasing number of victims we know have been murdered with weapons provided compliments of ATF.

As the investigation gains traction, with DOJ/ATF insiders scrambling to sidestep responsibility for Fast and Furious, the likelihood of tracing the operation to its source increases.

Only a few weeks ago, Washington was sending out signals that ATF Director Kenneth Melson would step down, but Melson responded to premature rumors of his professional death by meeting with Congressional investigators over the July Fourth holiday, at which time the beleaguered ATF Director told Congressional investigators that the list of political appointees and senior officials who knew and approved Fast and Furious, even when it was clear the operation was an failure, extended into the highest ranks of the Department of Justice and beyond.

Both Congressman Issa and Senator Grassley have accused the Department of Justice of willful obfuscation, as well as of targeting ATF Director Melson as an Administration fall guy. Melson’s forced resignation, according to investigators, would have facilitated the continuation of a DOJ coverup and served to protect the careers of higher-ups in DOJ and the Administration. President Obama, who has denied any knowledge of Gunrunner/Fast and Furious, has called the DOJ/ATF operation a ‘serious mistake.’

Can Obama’s Department of Justice hold that tiger? Anything is possible when there are deals to be made in Washington, DC, especially during budget talks, but if the information offered to Congress by ATF whistleblower John Dodson is correct, there may not be much wiggle room left.

Mexico–in or out?

Senator Grassley says the upcoming hearings will home in on Mexico. It’s about time. Those called to testify include Carlos Canino, ATF Acting Attache to Mexico; Carlos Gil, former ATF Attache to Mexico; Jose Wall, ATF Senior Special Agent, Tijuana/Mexico; Lorren Leadmon, ATF Intelligence Operations Specialist; William Newell, former ATF SAC, Phoenix Field Division; and William McMahon, ATF Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations (West, including Phoenix and Mexico). If anyone knows where the skeletons are buried, or if the US briefed Mexico on Fast and Furious, it’s this group.

Whether Congress wants to know if Mexican officials were involved in the ATF operation is another story.

Both the LA Times and UPI reported yesterday that the US Embassy in Mexico knew nothing about the operation, and that officials there voiced their concerns about increasing shipments of guns into Mexico to the State Department early in the game. The July 26th hearings should straighten the situation out. But enforcement insiders have speculated that officials from the US Department of Justice met with their counterparts from Mexico’s Justice Department as early as 2009 to update Mexican officials on Fast and Furious and obtain their ‘cooperation,’ as required by the Brownsville Agreement.

If the DOJ bypassed the Mexican authorities on this one, if ATF initiated an undercover operation involving Mexico without inviting them to the party, then guess what? They’ve broken another law. Here’s how it works. The Brownsville Agreement, signed by Janet Reno, Attorney General of the US, and her counterpart from Mexico’s Department of Justice was a Clinton Administration response to Mexico’s outrage over a unilateral undercover investigation into money laundering launched by US Customs in the late 90s.

Operation Casablanca tracked millions in narco-dollars to members of the Mexican Cabinet, triggering outrage and embarrassment on the part of the Zedillo Administration. The Brownsville Agreement is a US-Mexico ‘treaty,’ still in effect, that ensures the US government will never again initiates an investigation that might ‘ensnare’ or involve Mexican nationals–it requires the US to brief and involve the Mexican government (and by definition this includes the Mexican military and federal police) in any operation, including Fast and Furious, that could mean trouble for our second largest trading partner.

Now get this: when the news about Fast and Furious broke in early March, President Calderon happened to be visiting the White House–a perfect venue to showcase his legendary ire. But Calderon, for once, bypassed the drama, opting instead for a muted, low-key response to yet another disclosure that los Yanquis had invaded Mexico’s sovereignty. What’s wrong with this picture?

When Calderon’s spokespeople did finally weigh in on the situation, Mexico denied any knowledge of the operation–surprising since ATF had issued a press release in 2009 citing US-Mexico cooperation on Project Gunrunner, the larger umbrella enterprise that spawned Fast and Furious.

It sounds like this time the Brownsville Agreement might have left Mexico between a rock and a hard place. Clearly, that’s where it deposited the US Department of Justice….

If DOJ failed to inform Mexico about Fast and Furious, Holder’s people violated the Brownsville Agreement–a serious problem for US-Mexico relations. On the other hand, if investigators determine that US officials from the Department of Justice and ATF were acting in concert with Mexico to implement the ‘gun walking’ operation, it could mean that ATF drove the illegal sale of thousands of assault rifles to Mexican cartel gangs with the knowledge and perhaps the logistical support of the Mexican military and federal police force, institutions with close ties and market access to drug kingpins.

Let the House Oversight Committee tackle that can of worms, the possibility that the US government may have worked hand-in-hand with the Calderon Administration to lend substance and evidentiary support to Mexico’s claim that the US is somehow to blame for the slaughter in the no-man’s land that is northern Mexico and southern Arizona/Texas. US Border Patrol Agents on the SW border are restricted to lobbing bean bags at Mexico–what’s Congress going to do? Threaten to pull the US out of NAFTA?

The House Oversight Committee has the duty as well as the appetite to go after DOJ and ATF, but Mexico, where nothing enters that isn’t allowed to by the government, the military and the federal police, is likely to remain off-limits.

It isn’t personal, it’s business.

Message to Congress?

Let the games begin.








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.