Report: 5 ATF officials blamed in botched ‘Fast and Furious’ operation

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House and Senate investigators singled out five ATF officials Tuesday for blame in the failure of the Fast and Furious gunrunning operation that led to the transfer of more than 2,000 illegally purchased weapons to drug smugglers in Mexico.

The five men already have been reassigned for miscues in the botched Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operation.

“Strong leadership is needed at ATF to overcome the deep scars left by Operation Fast and Furious,” the report said. “Greater accountability within ATF would underscore that ineffective supervision and recklessness both have consequences.”

The findings are part of a 211-page draft report by staff investigators for Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee,

Those named in the report are William Newell, former special agent in charge of ATF’s Phoenix field division; William McMahon, former deputy assistant director for field operations; Mark Chait, former assistant director for field operations; William Hoover, former deputy director; and Kenneth Melson, former acting ATF director.

“From the outset, the case was marred by missteps, poor judgments and an inherently reckless strategy,” said the report, the first of three to be released as part of an 18-month investigation.

Of the more than 2,000 weapons transferred to Mexican drug smugglers, nearly 1,000 remain unaccounted for. Two semiautomatic assault rifles purchased by “straw buyers” at a Glendale, Ariz., gun shop during the operation were found at the site of the shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry.

The Terry death was the catalyst for a heated debate between the Justice Department and Congress over the Fast and Furious operation. The department’s refusal to turn over hundreds of pages of Fast and Furious documents led to a contempt citation in June by the House against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. The report said the House intends to move “soon” to “commence legal proceedings” to enforce the citation.

The Justice Department has denied allowing guns to be “walked” to Mexico, and Mr. Holder has said he was unaware weapons were knowingly being transferred south of the border.

The report, according to Mr. Grassley, lists evidence detailing numerous errors and decisions by ATF officials and the Arizona U.S. attorney’s office that led to serious problems — including interagency communication failures among ATF, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. He said the failed operation might have contributed to the deaths of an unknown number of Mexican citizens and created an ongoing public safety hazard on both sides of the border.

The report said that in December 2009, the DEA supplied ATF with extensive information on what would become ATF’s prime target and, at that point, ATF should have shut down Fast and Furious, but failed to recognize the significance of the information. As a result, the report said, hundreds of guns flowed to criminals while two of the trafficking network’s customers, who were its connection to the Mexican drug cartels, were already known to U.S. law enforcement. It said the FBI and DEA had key information on the network’s connection to drug cartels in Mexico by the time ATF wiretaps were approved.

“The ATF wasted time, money and resources on wiretaps and put agents in harm’s way trying to learn about the links that other agencies had already made,” Mr. Grassley said. “It’s a classic case of government agencies’ failure to connect the dots. The ATF clearly needs to clean up its act, and the Department of Justice needs to make certain this kind of program is never allowed to happen again.”

Mr. Issa said the ATF and the Arizona U.S. attorney’s office “failed to consider and protect the safety of Americans, Mexicans and fellow law enforcement personnel.

“Testimony and a persistent reluctance to fully cooperate make clear that many officials at ATF and the Department of Justice would have preferred to quietly sweep this matter under the rug,” he said. “Though they are among the most vocal objectors to oversight by Congress, this investigation has also shown that both agencies are among those most in need of additional scrutiny and attention from Congress.”

Operation Fast and Furious began in 2009 and continued to the day after Terry’s death on Dec. 14, 2010.

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