Despite Higman’s claim in his email, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was all but left out of the investigation to this point, and remained so even as the ring of suspects grew. One suspect indicated a desire to buy “short” AR15 upper receivers, which can only legally be used to mate with registered “pistol” AR15 lowers. Creating a short barreled rifle (SBR) by combining an AR15 rifle lower and pistol upper is a major federal felony violation of the National Firearms Act, and due to the long-recognized theory of “constructive possession,” merely owning the pistol length upper and a rifle lower is grounds for a lengthy prison sentence. Once again, the responsible Assistant U.S. Attorney’s Office was unresponsive, and the Tucson ATF declined to pursue an arrest, and let more guns walk.
SAC Bill Newell of the ATF Phoenix office was collaborating with Higman by this point, and approved of the tactics of letting guns walk. Newell later became a central figure in the Fast and Furious gunwalking plot.
It was only months later, in an operation with a separate group of suspects and dubbed “Wide Receiver II,” that ATF Tucson agents attempted to finally coordinate with Mexican authorities. They proved to be as inept as the ATF agents and U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The gunwalking of Operation Wide Receiver finally ended in August of 2009. The report is curiously vague as to why the operation ended the way it did, suggesting it dried up naturally. This bears more scrutiny.
Of the 474 firearms purchased during Operation Wide Receiver, ATF Tucson let 410 of them “walk.”
The OIG report shows definitively that Wide Receiver was an ATF Tucson operation, with limited involvement of ATF Phoenix and barely competent involvement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.
It further established that the tactics of Operation Wide Receiver never came to the attention of senior DOJ officials during the Bush administration, and only came to the attention of senior Justice officials under the Obama administration. Even though the same individuals that ran Wide Receiver also launched Fast and Furious using similar tactics, Obama’s DOJ failed to provide oversight.
It was late 2009 or early 2010 before DOJ began pursuing criminal indictments, and it was at this time, under the Obama administration, that the first hints of a pending coverup were noted in the OIJ report:
Both prosecution memos detailed the number of firearms purchased and the evidence against each defendant, including information from real-time recordings made of the transactions between the FFL and the subjects, and both noted, “[T]here are many things about this case that could be embarrassing to ATF,” including the fact that that guns “were sold and not accounted for” and likely “are in Mexico killing people.”
By April 12, 2010, the Obama Department of Justice’s clear interest was in avoiding embarrassment more than seeking prosecutions. Jason Weinstein, who later makes an appearance as the Obama administration fall guy for the scandal, sent an email indicating the DOJ was in damage control mode:
Been thinking more about “Wide Receiver I.” ATF HQ should/will be embarrassed that they let this many guns walk — I’m stunned, based on what we’ve had to do to make sure not even a single operable weapon walked in UC operations I’ve been involved in planning — and there will be press about that. In addition, this diary that casts aspersions on one of the agents is a challenge for the case but also something that is likely to embarrass ATF publicly. For those reasons, I think we need to make sure we go over these issues with our front office and with Billy Hoover before we charge the case. Of course we should still go forward, but we owe it to ATF HQ to preview these issues before anything gets filed.