The inspector general’s investigation into the Department of Justice’s role in Operation Fast and Furious was not expected to be a blockbuster report. The primary interest in the document for members of the media, investigators, and the public alike was how Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz would choose to participate in a cover-up.
Horowitz did not disappoint. The six-part, 471-page report dedicated an entire chapter to Operation Wide Receiver, a program that began in 2006 and did not terminate until mid-2009.
Wide Receiver was an ATF operation started by local agents during the Bush administration which allowed hundreds of weapons to “walk” into Mexico. During congressional hearings, House Oversight Committee Democrats pounded a “Bush did it too” theme — attempting to excuse the Obama administration for Fast and Furious because a similar operation took place in Arizona prior to Obama taking office.
But what precisely did the inspector general’s report say about the practice of gunwalking during Operation Wide Receiver, and does it actually support what Democrats and the media have claimed?
The first thing established by Horowitz is that the OIG’s report was by no means a “finished” report or the final word on either Wide Receiver or Fast and Furious. It did not compel those most closely linked to possible corrupt behavior to testify, something that only a much-needed criminal investigation by an independent prosecutor could provide.
Key personnel involved in both cases flatly refused to talk to the inspector general (a significant detail most reporting on the story to date has overlooked). Charles Higman was the Resident Agent in Charge (RAC) in the ATF Tucson office during Operation Wide Receiver and had direct management responsibility. Wide Receiver was “his” case, and he flatly refused to respond to the OIJ’s repeated requests for interviews.
Operation Wide Receiver started in early 2006, when a Federal Firearms License (FFL) holder contacted the ATF about a purchaser that had bought six AR15 lower receivers (the individual part that is legally the gun) at a gun show, and wanted to purchase 20 more. The FFL suspected the purchaser, an 18-year-old, was a straw purchaser. The ATF formally opened an investigation on March 2, 2006, after interviewing the FFL.
Agents then “lost” the first batch of 20 guns on March 20 when they were given the slip by a smuggler.
By March 28, the straw purchaser was recorded making arrangements to buy more lower receivers, and stated that the lower receivers were being illegally converted into fully automatic weapons. The ATF refused to arrest the straw purchaser at the time, hoping the illegal gunsmith could also be busted.
RAC Higman then sent an email explicitly calling for 50 lower receivers to be walked on March 30:
The bandits have put a $ deposit toward buying 50 this Sat., and intend on 50 more in the next week or two. We have verified 26 to date; the USAO is on board. We are looking to let these 50 walk while identifying the location/subject who is doing the conversions with an eye to doing Search/Arrest warrant the next go ‘round.
Higman’s email was the first explicit, documented mention in the IG report noting an intention of facilitating weapons smuggling to Mexican drug cartels in hopes of catching “bigger fish.”
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.
Far from being an indictment of the Bush administration as Democrats and the media have claimed (due in no small part to the conspiratorial relationship between DOJ spokesperson Tracy Schmaler and left-wing Media Matters), the inspector general’s investigation into Operation Wide Receiver shows conclusively that Wide Reciever was localized, compartmentalized, and all but rogue during the Bush era, with no involvement by DOJ officials and only limited local contact with U.S. attorneys.
If anything, what the OIG report shows us during the later stages of Operation Wide Receiver, when it was finally brought to the attention of Eric Holder’s Justice Department, is that the key interest of the Department was damage control — covering up the hundreds of weapons walked and the resulting murders committed with ATF-walked guns.
Tellingly, at no point do the agents on the ground in Tucson or Phoenix, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or in the Obama Justice Department seem to have more than a cursory interest in the lives they’ve endangered and ends lost as a result of letting more than 400 weapons reach Mexican cartels through Operation Wide Receiver.
There needs to be significant additional investigation into Operation Wide Receiver apart from Operation Fast and Furious, including a criminal investigation by an independent prosecutor. OIG Horowitz’s report barely scratches the surface.