Phoenix ATF Special Agent Peter Forcelli’s Congressional Testimony on Operation Fast & Furious
ATF Special Agent Peter Forcelli’s testified at the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform on how Phoenix Group 7′s policy had allowed gun trafficking to thrive near the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Good morning, Chairman Issa, Ranking Member Cummings and members of the committee. I thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee today.
“I’m here to provide testimony I hope will assist with your inquiry into the ATF investigation that has come to be known as “Operation Fast and Furious.” I believe that your inquiry is essential. There have been grave mistakes made in this case. The committee, the American People, and the family of slain U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry deserve answers.
“Please allow me to give you a little background information about myself. In 1987, I began my career with the New York City Police Department. I worked in Bronx County, often referred to as “The Bronx” as a uniformed police officer, and then ultimately as a detective in the Bronx Homicide Task Force. In my career, I estimate that I have responded to approximately 600 homicide scenes. The vast majority were drug related, committed by armed criminals, and these violent criminals were armed with illegal firearms, and they had little regard for human life.
“I retired early from the NYPD in June of 2001 to take a position with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), as it was then known. I did this because I had the honor of working with ATF agents who were working and making great cases, working hand in hand with incredible prosecutors from the Southern District (SDNY) and Eastern District of New York (EDNY). In working with these offices, one thing was very clear. Dedicated prosecutors worked hand in hand with dedicated ATF agents to make great cases that truly impacted the safety of the public. There was an absolute sense of teamwork and respect. Again, I emphasize the words teamwork and respect.
“Together with the prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office with whom I had worked, we had used, confidential informants, proffers, cooperation agreements, “Waivers of Speedy Presentment”, investigative grand juries, grand jury subpoenas and an abundance of other investigative tools to make successful cases as a part of a team.
“I left the New York Field Division in March of 2007, to begin working in my current post of duty as a Supervisor of the Phoenix I Field Office. Within weeks, I was surprised at what I had observed. In my opinion, my professional opinion, dozens of firearms traffickers were given a pass by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona. Despite the existence of “probable cause” in many cases, there were no indictments, no prosecutions, and criminals were allowed to walk free. In short, their office policies, in my opinion, helped pave a dangerous path.
“Fortunately, the same could not be said of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office – state prosecutors – to which we agents were forced to turn for prosecution of firearm cases. Victor Varela and his associates, who trafficked .50 caliber rifles directly to Mexican Drug Cartels, one of which was used to kill a Mexican military commander were successfully prosecuted by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. This was after the case had been declined for federal prosecution by Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley due to what he referred to as “corpus delecti” issues.
“Mr. Varela, sadly, was released from prison last July, because of lesser sentencing guidelines that applied in state court, but the alternative- no prosecution- in my eyes was unacceptable.
“Another case, which involved a corrupt federal firearms licensee, who was supplying guns to several firearms trafficking organizations, was declined by Mr. Hurley. This particular dealer, in his post- arrest statement, admitted that “approximately 1000 of his firearms” were trafficked to Mexico. Over one half -dozen of that dealer’s firearms were located around the body of Arturo Beltran-Leyva, the head of Beltran-Leyva Cartel, after he was killed in a fierce gun battle with the Mexican Naval Infantry in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
“Due the recalcitrance of the United States Attorney’s Office, cases such as these were presented for prosecution to the Arizona Attorney General’s office, where state law carries lesser penalties than they did under the federal statute. I believe that this situation, wherein the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona in Phoenix particularly, declined most of our firearm cases, was at lest one factor which led to the debacle that is now known as “Operation Fast and Furious.”
“I’ll fast forward to “Operation Fast and Furious” itself. ATF agents assigned to the Phoenix Field Division, with the concurrence of their local chain of command, “walked” guns. ATF agents allowed weapons to be provided to individuals whom they knew would traffic them to members of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). They did so by failing to lawfully interdict the weapons, and they did so by encouraging federal firearms licensees to continue selling weapons in instances where they knew no interdiction efforts would be planned.
“When I voiced surprise and concern with this tactic to SAC William Newell and ASAC 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.” My other ASAC, Jim Needles, merely said “Pete, You know that if you or I were running the case, it wouldn’t be run this way.”
“This operation, which in my opinion endangered the American public, was orchestrated in conjunction with Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley – the same Assistant U.S. Attorney who prevented us from using some of the common and accepted law enforcement techniques utilized elsewhere in the United States. I have read documents that indicate that his boss, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, also agreed with the direction of this case.
“Allowing firearms to be trafficked to criminals is a dangerous and deadly strategy. The thought that the techniques used in the “Fast and Furious” investigation would result in “taking down a cartel” given the toothless nature of the “straw purchasing law” and the lack of a strong “firearms trafficking statute” is, in my opinion, delusional.
“Based upon my conversations with agents who assisted in this case, surveillance was often terminated on individuals far from the border, which means that the case agents believed the weapons were destined for Mexico, the possibility exists that they were trafficked with cartel drugs to other points within the United States of America.
“As a career law enforcement officer, who has had to investigate the deaths of police officers, children and others at the hands of armed criminals, I was and continue to be horrified. Truly horrified. I believe that these firearms will continue to turn up at crime scenes, on both sides of the border, for years to come.
“In closing, I want the members of the committee and all Americans to know that this is not how ATF agents conduct business. I’m very proud of some of the incredible work done by ATF agents around the country every day. ATF agents have given their lives in the performance of their duties. On my last trip back to New York, sir, I had the duty to be present for a homicide trial. In that same courthouse in the Southern District of New York, there were three other separate homicide trials going on all from three separate ATF-initiated investigations. That’s the type of work ATF agents do everyday, and that’s what I’d like the committee to keep in mind as well.
“I thank you for your time. Again, my condolences to the Terry family.”
- Committee on Government Oversight & Reform: Written testimony submitted by ATF Special Agent Peter Forcelli (PDF)
- Committee on Oversight & Government Reform: The Department of Justice’s Operation Fast & Furious: Accounts of ATF Agents joint staff report released June 14, 2011 (PDF)
- Customs & Border Patrol: In remembrance of Brian A. Terry, Border Patrol Agent
- WhatTheFolly.com: Congressional testimony of Robert Heyer on the ATF’s Operation Fast & Furious
- WhatTheFolly.com: Phoenix ATF Agent John Dodson’s Congressional Testimony on Operation Fast & Furious
- WhatTheFolly.com: Phoenix ATF Special Agent Olindo “Lee” James Casa’s Congressional Testimony on Operation Fast & Furious