Gunwalker: William Newell Circles the Wagons
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service were all aware of Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed thousands of military-style weapons to "walk" across the southern border to the Sinaloa drug cartel and other criminals.
These explosive revelations came on Tuesday, as Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) grilled the former ATF special agent who was in charge of the Gunwalker program, William Newell.
Meehan noted the so-called "plaza bosses" -- mid-level bosses within the cartels who were the ones often purchasing the walked guns -- expected to get what they'd paid for, when Newell insisted that it had never been part of the plan to allow guns to walk across the border:
You understand if he purchased $70,000 worth of guns he expects $70,000 worth of guns. Where does that come in with "there's no strategy to allow guns into Mexico?"
Meehan pressed on, angrily, without giving Newell time to answer and demanded to know which agencies were involved with the operation. Newell replied that they had received assistance from ICE, DEA, and IRS. Apparently the FBI knew about it as well -- indeed, some of the straw buyers ATF was targeting were FBI informants.
When Meehan, a former federal prosecutor, demanded to know if those agencies knew guns were being walked into Mexico, Newell answered: "they were aware of the strategy."
It was a rough day for Newell. Several lawmakers grilled him about the program relentlessly, including South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, a freshman congressman and also a former federal and state prosecutor.
Gowdy asked repeatedly if Newell interrogated the first straw purchaser the ATF knew for a fact was buying guns illegally. Newell said no, and several times during his testimony tried to make the case that taking down one straw buyer would have had little or no effect.
Gowdy insisted they should have interrogated the first straw buyer they knew had sold guns across the border, rather than walking more than 2,500 guns with an eye to getting a cooperative witness:
That's an old fashioned investigative technique, it's not as complicated as letting guns walk. It is more effective though, to go back and interrogate the person who made the acquisition.
Gowdy then demanded to know how exactly the ATF planned to extradite the drug kingpins, and was told there had never been any intention to do so. Gowdy was incredulous:
So once the guns made it to Mexico there was nothing you were going to do about those drug kingpins.
Newell said there was in fact a plan in place:
Yes sir, there was. One of the things we were going to do was as soon as we had solid information on who those drug kingpins were we were going to share that information with Mexican law enforcement.
So they're supposed to trust American law enforcement, who's been conducting an investigation and knows guns are going into Mexico and you told them after the fact and they're supposed to thank you and be partners in this endeavor? How are you going to dismantle the Mexican cartels if you're not going to extradite the drug kingpins back to the United States, sir?
We hoped the Mexicans would prosecute them for that.
Gowdy was derisive in his reply:
So you're going to help the Mexican justice system, you're just not going to tell the Mexican justice system about it? It was never going to work.
ATF Special Agent Carlos Canino, acting ATF attaché to Mexico, also told the committee that not only was the Mexican government unaware of the program, so were the ATF agents based in Mexico:
At no time, ever, did I know of ATF following known gun traffickers. I had no clue we were allowing guys to act like this.
I was so disgusted, I didn’t want to look at the case file anymore. It goes against everything we’re taught. From the day you walk into academy until the day you leave.
This is a trafficking case, this is what we do. It’s not special.
Gowdy was equally disgusted:
I worked with ATF for six years directly and I worked with ATF indirectly for 10 years. This is one of the saddest days, in fact it might be the saddest day in my 6 months in Congress. ATF has a wonderful reputation in South Carolina. We never once contemplated letting firearms walk, ever. A first year Quantico (the FBI training academy) or Glynco (U.S. Marshall Service) person knows that.
Prior to Tuesday's hearings, the committee released another report on Operation Fast and Furious of some 60 pages. Among the findings:
• There was little to no information sharing from the Phoenix Field Division, ATF Headquarters and the Justice Department to their colleagues in Mexico City. Every time Mexico City officials asked about the mysterious investigation, their U.S. based ATF counterparts in Phoenix and Washington, D.C. continued to say they were "working on it" and "everything was under control."
• Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division at the Justice Department, was clearly aware of Operation Fast and Furious and touted the case during a visit to Mexico.
• ATF officials in Mexico City were incredulous that their agency would knowingly allow guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, and they were incensed when they finally began to learn the full scope of Operation Fast and Furious and the investigative techniques used.
Not only did Breuer know about the program, but Attorney General Eric Holder's chief of staff did as well. There are now only two possibilities: either Holder simply didn't want to know about the program, or was so disconnected from his department as to have essentially abrogated his responsibilities.
The former is possibly criminal, the latter merely incompetent, and either should exclude him from continuing as attorney general.