WASHINGTON – Arizona-area supervisors for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acknowledged in a sometimes emotional five-hour congressional hearing Tuesday that “we made mistakes” in Operation Fast and Furious.
But the supervisors defended the intent of the program, which allowed some illicit gun buyers to go unmolested in an effort to uncover larger gun-trafficking networks that armed Mexican drug cartels. Some of those guns were later found at violent crime scenes after they “walked” into the hands of criminals on both sides of the border.
“We did the best possible,” said William Newell, former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division. “I don’t believe guns were walking.”
Comments from Newell and William McMahon, ATF assistant director for field operations/West, brought intense questioning from a skeptical House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. They drew an especially sharp response from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who called Newell a “paid non-answerer.”
“It’s only you and Mr. McMahon and other people in Justice who continue to come to this committee saying, ‘We don’t let guns walk,’” said Issa, the committee chairman. “Are they lying or are you lying?”
The committee issued a report Tuesday that was highly critical of the operation.
McMahon and Newell were the first ATF supervisors the committee has had the opportunity to question about the so-called “gun-walking” operation. They were also the only two of the witnesses Tuesday to defend the intent of the program.
The other four officials, all ATF agents who have worked in Mexico or along the border, testified that they were kept in the dark about Operation Fast and Furious.
When Darren Gil, former ATF attache to Mexico, noticed an increased number of weapons in Mexico traced back to Arizona in 2009, he expressed concerns to colleagues in Phoenix. He testified that the response was, “We’re working at it, and thanks for calling and making us aware and then we’ll follow it up from there.”
Carlos Canino, acting ATF attache to Mexico, testified that “there’s no room for walking guns” in the agency. He said he would have notified supervisors immediately if he ever found out guns were being allowed to walk.
“Letting guns walk is not what ATF does,” said Canino, who was emotional at several points during his testimony.
Lorren Leadmon, an ATF team leader for field intelligence support at the Southwest border, called Operation Fast and Furious an example of “blatant disregard for public safety.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., asked Newell what procedure was in place to watch straw purchasers, middle-men who pass guns from gun sellers to the cartels. Newell was not able to outline an explicit plan.
McMahon conceded he should have more thoroughly reviewed documents that came across his desk during the operation. Newell said, “There should have been more frequent risk assessment.”
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said that Congress’ hands are not entirely clean in this situation: He reminded the committee that Congress has a history of limiting ATF budgets and resources.
“It’s easy to beat up on you,” said Connolly to the ATF supervisors. “But for six years Congress has interfered with the ATF’s ability to do their job.”
Newell said the purpose of the investigation was to “charge, arrest and dismantle the entire (Mexican cartel) organization,” not to allow guns to be taken to Mexico. He told the committee he welcomed any tools Congress could provide them with to better fight gun trafficking.
But other witnesses said Fast and Furious should not have escalated to the point it has.
“Firearms trafficking cases are not complicated,” Canino said. “The reason it’s (the Fast and Furious furor) so big is because we didn’t do anything.
“I am embarrassed,” said Canino, who spoke of friends — “American heroes”– in the agency who are now ashamed to carry an ATF badge.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, described Operation Fast and Furious as the ATF using people’s lives as “pawns” without even discussing it.
“It’s reprehensible,” Gosar said. “Both sides of the aisle are furious. And the American people are furious.”