Congressional report slams Justice Department & ATF for botched ‘gun walking’ operation

Democrats.Oversight.House.gov

ANALYSIS:

Congressional Republicans issued a report last week harshly criticizing the Justice Department’s handling of a botched gun trafficking case known as Operation Fast and Furious.

“From the outset, the case was marred by missteps, poor judgments, and an inherently reckless strategy,” lambasted the report, “Fast and Furious: The Anatomy of a Failed Operation”, commissioned by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Between 2009 and 2010, the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) allowed guns bought illegally by straw purchasers – or individuals who buy firearms in small batches for someone else – to “walk” or reach their final destinations in Mexico.

The controversial “gun walking” method was an attempt by the ATF to dismantle gun trafficking networks along the U.S.-Mexico border instead of simply arresting and prosecuting straw purchasers, who often face light sentences (such as probation) for committing gun offenses.

However, many of the guns allowed to “walk” have ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels, fueling the deadly drug war across the border.

Operation Fast and Furious was terminated shortly after the shooting death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. Weapons recovered at the scene of Terry’s death were traced back to a straw purchaser who was under ATF surveillance.

The joint report criticized the flawed and dangerous approach adopted by Phoenix ATF agents and the lack of oversight by the Justice Department.

Read more: ATF Director accuses DEA, FBI & Justice Department of withholding key information during Operation Fast & Furious

“ATF and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office failed to consider and protect the safety of Americans, Mexicans, and fellow law enforcement personnel throughout Operation Fast and Furious,” said Issa, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Political witchhunt

The report was released a month after House Republicans voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for invoking executive privilege to withhold certain documents from congressional investigators. Although Holder has testified at numerous hearings and furnished the House Oversight and Senate Judiciary committees with thousands of pages of documents pertaining to Operation Fast and Furious, the Justice Department has declined to release some documents to Congress, citing the ongoing investigation by the department’s Office of the Inspector General. Issa said he will sue to force the Justice Department to comply with his subpoenas.

Read more: Transcript: AG Eric Holder calls House contempt vote ‘irresponsible’ & ‘politically motivated’

House Democrats protested the contempt vote, accusing Issa of exploiting the case to embark on a political witch hunt against Holder, who has stepped up protection of voting rights and prosecution of financial and health care fraud – issues that are politically unpopular with Republicans.

“[The] contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder is the culmination of one of the most highly politicized and reckless congressional investigations in decades,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee. “The Republicans’ actions have undermined the standing of the House, cemented the Speaker’s legacy as extreme, and will be recorded by history as a discredit to this institution.”

Cummings pointed out that Issa conveniently ignored that the gun walking tactics employed in Operation Fast and Furious were first developed during Operation Wide Receiver in 2006 and were carried on in the Hernandez and Medrano cases in 2007 and 2008. No Justice Department officials from the Bush administration – including then Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who authorized the gun walking tactics – were ever held accountable.

Democrats urge tougher federal gun trafficking laws

While Issa’s investigation continues to focus on the Justice Department’s alleged cover-up, House Democrats have tried (with little success) to call attention to the weak federal straw purchasing and gun trafficking laws that have long hampered the ATF’s efforts to curb the flow of firearms – particularly high-powered assault weapons – into Mexico.

The drug cartel wars have killed more than 40,000 people in Mexico between 2007 and 2011. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon said that 84% of the 100,000 guns seized at crime scenes in Mexico came from the United States. ATF estimates that about 75% of those weapons were purchased in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California.

“Multiple law enforcement agents who appeared before the Committee warned that current penalties for illegal straw purchases are completely inadequate either to deter illegal purchases before they occur or to encourage suspects to cooperate with law enforcement investigations after the fact. They warned that U.S. Attorneys’ offices often decline to prosecute illegal straw purchasing cases because of inadequate penalties and the high burden of proof,” according to Cummings’ 2011 report “OUTGUNNED: Law Enforcement Agents Warn Congress They Lack Adequate Tools to Counter Illegal Firearms Trafficking”.

Cummings noted that since federal law does not specifically criminalize gun trafficking, prosecutors have resorted to charging straw purchasers and weapons traffickers with “paperwork violations”, such as buying and selling firearms without a license. The penalties for such violations are usually limited to probation or fine.

“There is really no trafficking, firearms trafficking statute, per se,”ATF Special Agent Lee Casa told congressional investigators. “It would be nice to have a trafficking statute per se or to enhance some of the penalties on even, on the straw purchasers, just to be a deterrent effect … so we can really hammer these people and just put them in jail.”

 

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