WASHINGTON -- The "Fast and Furious" gunrunning operation has been widely condemned by Republicans, Democrats and even top officials at the Justice Department as a failed sting. The case has led to the ouster of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, President Barack Obama's first use of executive privilege and a probable congressional vote of contempt today against the attorney general.
But in the eyes of the man who started and oversaw Fast and Furious, the operation remains an example of smart law enforcement -- an approach that simply has been misunderstood.
"It was the only way to dismantle an entire firearms-trafficking ring and stop the thousands of guns flowing to Mexico," said veteran federal agent William D. Newell, who spent five years as head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.
In his first public interview about the operation, Mr. Newell said he believed that he and his agents were working the largest gun-trafficking case of their careers and finally had a window into Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel. To identify cartel members, ATF agents, starting in 2009, watched as about 2,000 weapons purchased at Phoenix gun stores hit the streets, with the goal of tracing them to the cartel.
But on Dec. 14, 2010, Operation Fast and Furious came crashing down. A Border Patrol agent was killed in the Arizona desert, and two AK-47s at the scene were tied to Mr. Newell's operation. Agents working under him, enraged, went to lawmakers about the operation, sparking an 18-month investigation led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who called Fast and Furious "felony stupid."
While Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has turned over 7,600 documents related to the case, he has refused to turn over all Justice Department memos and emails that reflect internal deliberations that occurred after Congress began its investigation. The White House has invoked executive privilege in the matter. As a result, the House is scheduled to vote today on whether Mr. Holder should become the first-ever sitting attorney general to be held in contempt.
Democrats charge that the battle is political theater, backed by the National Rifle Association, to embarrass Mr. Holder and the White House in an election year.
But Republicans adamantly deny that the contempt vote is about politics. They say the issue is about an attorney general whose Justice Department, in refusing to release documents, is covering up what senior officials knew and when about a botched gun operation that allowed thousands of firearms onto U.S. streets and into Mexico and resulted in the death of a U.S. border agent.
Fast and Furious is the worst crisis for the ATF since the deadly 1993 confrontation in Waco, Tex., and the reverberations have shaken the Justice Department. Mr. Holder has called the gun operation "flawed" and asked his inspector general to investigate. He has repeatedly maintained that he didn't know about the tactics used until February 2011, after Congress began inquiring.
According to Mr. Newell, there is no evidence that Mr. Holder or any high-ranking Justice official knew the ins and outs of his gun case. But plenty of other officials in the ATF and the Phoenix U.S. Attorney's Office did -- and approved it, Mr. Newell said.
In the fall of 2009, the Justice Department was putting pressure on Mr. Newell and his agents to combat Mexican cartels by identifying and eliminating the pipelines being used to move guns across the border. There were calls in Washington to bring down the trafficking network, not just those on the lowest rung, the "straw purchasers" who buy guns legally, then transfer them up the cartels' hierarchy.
Mr. Newell's office developed a plan: To identify the drug networks, his agents would track -- but not arrest -- straw buyers. The agents could follow them and associates, wiretap conversations and perhaps charge more senior cartel members with crimes such as conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering.
The plan was permitted under ATF rules, had legal backing from U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke in Phoenix, was approved by Mr. Newell's ATF superiors and was funded by a regional task force of the Justice Department, ATF's parent agency. Justice officials also signed off on wiretap applications, although the applications didn't describe the tactics used, said Democratic lawmakers who have seen them.
Three similar operations were tried during the Bush administration by the same ATF field office, including a Tucson plan dubbed "Operation Wide Receiver" that involved many fewer guns -- about 300. "The notion that there was a secret tactic is totally absurd," Mr. Newell said.
Mr. Newell said prosecutors told him that, in most straw-purchase cases, agents' hands were tied. They didn't have probable cause to arrest straw buyers because those were legal buys, and it was difficult to prove that the buyers were committing a crime by giving the gun to someone else.
Mr. Newell says he never told his agents to "let guns walk." Instead, he told them that they had to have sufficient evidence to satisfy prosecutors that they had probable cause to seize the guns.
His agents told a different story to a congressional committee.
They testified that supervisors instructed them not to move in and question buyers, but to let the guns go and see where they eventually ended up. They called their actions "gun-walking."
What Mr. Newell didn't count on was that agents working Fast and Furious on the ground were outraged by the operation.
He said he was unaware of "gun-walking" complaints or a brewing mutiny below him as months passed, and agents watched hundreds of guns enter the suspected cartel pipeline.
First Published June 28, 2012 12:00 AM