WASHINGTON — Democrats looking into Operation Fast and Furious say a yearlong investigation has turned up no evidence that the flawed gun smuggling probe was conceived or directed by high-level political appointees at Justice Department headquarters.
The probe, the Democrats say, was just one of four such operations that were part of a misguided five-year-long effort, during both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives against firearms trafficking along the Southwest border.
"Operation Fast and Furious was the latest in a series of fatally flawed operations run by ATF agents in Phoenix and the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office," the report from Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says.
It is expected to differ sharply with the conclusions of Republicans, who will question Attorney General Eric Holder about Operation Fast and Furious at a hearing Thursday before the committee.
On Tuesday, the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., threatened to pursue contempt of Congress proceedings against the attorney general on grounds the Justice Department has not turned over all the records subpoenaed by the committee. Issa gave Holder until Feb. 9 to comply.
"Your actions lead us to conclude that the department is actively engaged in a cover-up," Issa wrote in a letter to Holder. Over three months ago, the panel subpoenaed all the Justice Department's records about Fast and Furious from after Feb. 4, 2011.
That was the date the Justice Department incorrectly told Congress that ATF had not approved allowing the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser. On that date, Justice told Congress it makes every effort to intercept illegally purchased weapons.
Also that day, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the department's criminal division, suggested letting some illicit "straw" weapons buyers in the U.S. transport their guns across the border into Mexico where they could be arrested. According to an email turned over Friday night to Issa's committee, Breuer made the suggestion to Mexican law enforcement officials because it "may send a strong message to arms traffickers." Mexico has more stringent gun control laws with longer prison terms than those in the U.S., where small-time "straw" buyers working for major arms traffickers seldom face any significant jail time.
Responding to the Democrats' report, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the idea that "senior political appointees have clean hands in these gun-walking scandals doesn't pass the laugh test ... They ignored the warning signs and failed to put a stop to it or hold anyone accountable. Lanny Breuer is a senior political appointee, and he admits to knowing about gun-walking as early as April 2010."
Beginning six years ago, according to the Democrats' report, ATF agents in Phoenix devised a strategy to forgo arrests against low-level straw purchasers of guns while attempting to build bigger cases against higher-level traffickers, a risky tactic known as gun-walking.
"The committee has obtained no evidence indicating that the attorney general authorized gun-walking or that he was aware of such allegations before they became public," said the Democrats' report, "Fatally Flawed: Five Years of Gunwalking in Arizona." "None of the 22 witnesses interviewed by the committee claims to have spoken with the attorney general about the specific tactics employed in Operation Fast and Furious prior to the public controversy."
Rather than halting operations after flaws became evident, the ATF's Phoenix division "launched several similarly reckless operations over the course of several years, also with tragic results," the report said. "Each investigation involved various incarnations of the same activity: Agents were contemporaneously aware of illegal firearms purchases, they did not typically interdict weapons or arrest straw purchasers, and firearms ended up in the hands of criminals on both sides of the border."
Operation Fast and Furious came to light following the December 2010 slaying of U.S. border agent Brian Terry near Nogales, Ariz. Two guns connected to suspects in the Fast and Furious investigation were found at the Terry murder scene.
Operation Fast and Furious was the fourth such ATF gun-walking probe, according to the Democrats' report, which was based on documents collected by the committee.
The first gun-walking probe, said the report, was Operation Wide Receiver, in which ATF agents, for over a year starting in 2006, watched traffickers buying guns from a gun dealer and driving them across the border into Mexico. According to a memo by William Newell, who was in charge of the Phoenix division at the time, one of the suspects told the gun dealer that the "firearms are going to his boss in Tijuana, Mexico, where some are given out as gifts." ATF officials believed they had sufficient evidence to arrest and charge the suspects, but as one agent said at the time, "we want it all," according to an email between two ATF supervisors in Arizona.
A year after Wide Receiver began, ATF initiated attempts to coordinate with Mexican officials. Numerous attempts at cross-border interdiction failed, according to the Democrats' report, with ATF agents expressing concern over the operation.
In a 2007 case, ATF agents targeted Fidel Hernandez and several alleged co-conspirators who purchased more than 200 firearms and were believed to be transporting them into Mexico.
William Hoover, then ATF's assistant director of field operations, temporarily halted operations after being informed of several attempts at coordinating with Mexican law enforcement authorities.
The defendants were brought to trial in 2009, but acquitted after prosecutors were unable to obtain the cooperation of the Mexican law enforcement officials who had recovered firearms purchased by Hernandez.
In a 2008 case, ATF agents in Phoenix focused for a year on a network of illicit gun buyers who were purchasing weapons from the same gun dealer who had cooperated in Operation Wide Receiver.
Members of the network, led by Alejandro Medrano, were eventually sentenced to multiyear prison terms for trafficking more than 100 firearms to a Mexican drug cartel.
In Operation Fast and Furious, ATF agents in Phoenix late in 2009 identified a network of more than 20 straw purchasers believed to be trafficking military-grade assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Twenty people were charged in the case.
ATF Deputy Director William Hoover became concerned about the number of firearms involved in the case and ordered a strategy for the investigation to be brought to an end. Newell in Phoenix expressed frustration with ATF headquarters in Washington and "the operation continued to grow and expand rather than wind down over the months to follow," the Democrats' report said.