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“Based on my 18 years of experience with the ATF, I did not think the email was an empty threat. I took it very seriously,” Mr. Casa said.

In that March 12, 2010, email, Mr. Voth told the agents that “close attention” was being paid to Fast and Furious by “people of rank and authority” at ATF headquarters in Washington.

“It may sound cheesy, but we are ‘The tip of the ATF spear’ when it comes to Southwest border firearms trafficking. I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior,” Mr. Voth wrote. “If you don’t think this is fun, you’re in the wrong line of work — period!

“This is the pinnacle of domestic U.S. law enforcement techniques. After this, the toolbox is empty,” he wrote. “Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers, and you get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day. We need to get over this bump in the road once and for all and get on with the mission at hand. This can be the most fun you have with ATF, the only one limiting the amount of fun we have is you!”

Mr. Voth summed up the Fast and Furious program in an April 2010 memo, saying the violence in Mexico “is severe and without being dramatic, we have a sense of urgency with regards” to Fast and Furious. He noted that the straw buyers had purchased 359 firearms during the month of March 2010 alone, including numerous Barrett .50-caliber rifles.

“I believe we are righteous in our plan to dismantle this entire organization, and to rush in to arrest any one person without taking into account the entire scope of the conspiracy would be ill-advised to the overall good of the mission,” he said.

The repercussions

William McMahon, ATF deputy assistant director for field operations in Phoenix and Mexico, and William Newell, former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division, also defended the operation in their committee testimony.

Mr. Newell testified that ATF had good intentions when it began the operation in 2009 and that it was not its purpose to permit the transfer of firearms to Mexico. He said he would do such an investigation again with some changes.

In a supplemental statement to the committee, Mr. Newell said that after reviewing his testimony, he concluded he “should have conducted more frequent assessments” of the operation during which he could have “articulated to my staff the need to be proactive in ascertaining the quantity of guns being purchased that we were not able to intercept.”

Mr. Voth, Mr. Newell and Mr. McMahon all have since been moved to administrative duties.

Knowledge on high

President Obama has said he did not authorize Fast and Furious, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the House Judiciary Committee in May that he first became aware of it in April. “I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks,” he said.

But Mr. Grassley and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said Mr. Holder received at least five weekly memos beginning in July 2010 describing the Fast and Furious investigation.

The July 2010 memo from Michael Walther, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), specifically identifies the Fast and Furious operation, says when it began, names the law enforcement agencies involved, and identifies the major investigative targets.

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