ATF field agents working in Mexico broke ranks with their supervisors Tuesday during a rancorous five-hour House committee hearing, saying they were kept in the dark about a controversial undercover operation in which hundreds of guns ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Carlos Canino, the ATF acting attache to Mexico; Darren Gil, former attache; and Jose Wall, senior agent in Tijuana, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee they had serious concerns about the alarming rate of guns found in violent crimes in Mexico whose source was “Operation Fast and Furious” in Arizona.
“I would like to apologize to my former Mexican law enforcement counterparts and to the Mexican people for Operation Fast and Furious,” said Mr. Gil. “I hope they understand that this was kept secret from most of ATF, including me and my colleagues in Mexico.”
Mr. Gil said he found it “inconceivable” that any competent ATF agent would allow “firearms to disappear at all,” especially on an international border. As a result, he said, the Mexican people will continue to suffer the consequences of narcotics-related firearms violence.
In emotional and often angry comments, Mr. Canino said “walking guns” was not a recognized investigative technique, adding that hundreds of weapons ultimately went to ruthless criminals in Mexico.
“It infuriates me that people, including my law enforcement, diplomatic and military colleagues, may be killed or injured with these weapons,” he said, describing the Fast and Furious program as “insane” and adding that he was unable to defend it to government officials in Mexico who already think the U.S. is indifferent to Mexican violence and death.
“I have reason to believe we were kept in the dark because the ATF leadership in Phoenix feared we would tell our Mexican partners,” he said, adding that “never in my wildest dreams” would he have thought that ATF agents would allow guns to be walked to Mexican criminals.
Mr. Wall testified that he was skeptical when critical stories about the operation first appeared earlier this year, saying he “could not believe that someone in ATF would so callously let firearms wind up in the hands of criminals … But it appears I was wrong, that hundreds and quite possibly thousands of guns have been allowed to reach the hands of organized crime.”
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, steadfastly defended the program, denying a growing body of evidence showing that as many as 2,000 weapons were allowed to be walked or taken into Mexico.
Sitting next to the ATF field agents and subjected to testy exchanges with members of the committee, Mr. McMahon, the highest-ranking ATF official to testify publicly about the operation, accepted responsibility for what he described as “mistakes” in carrying out the program, but said ATF had good intentions when it began the operation in 2009.
“It was not the purpose of the investigation to permit the transportation of firearms into Mexico,” Mr. Newell added. “To the best of my knowledge, none of the suspects in this case was ever witnessed by our agents crossing the border with firearms.”
Mr. Newell said he would do such an investigation again with some changes.
The operation has drawn widespread criticism, sparking questions on who outside the agency knew that weapons were being taken from “straw buyers” in this country to Mexico. President Obama has said he did not authorize the program, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., also has pleaded ignorance, calling for an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.
At the Tuesday hearing, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the department’s Criminal Division, was described as being aware of the Fast and Furious operation, even touting it during a visit to Mexico.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and committee chairman, said the consequences of arming Mexican drug cartels seemed obvious, but as the weapons kept turning up at crime scenes in Mexico, there “wasn’t enough for Justice Department officials to arrest straw purchasers and shut down their trafficking operations.”
“Tragically, it wasn’t until Fast and Furious guns were found at the murder scene of a Border Patrol agent that Justice officials finally ended this reckless and arrogant effort,” Mr. Issa said, referring to the two ATF supervisors as the “paid non-answerers” as he unsuccessfully tried to get them to admit that ATF allowed the guns to be walked over the border.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, told Mr. Newell his testimony was “a frustration” to members of both parties.
When asked by Mr. Cummings to define how guns would be deemed as having been “walked” into Mexico, Mr. Newell responded they would have had to be handed by a law enforcement agent to the straw buyers and not by a gun shop owner, as they were, to meet his definition.
At least 122 weapons linked to Operation Fast and Furious have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, according to a report released Tuesday by Mr. Issa and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. More than 1,000 weapons are still unaccounted for, the report said.
The report also said there was “little to no information sharing” from the Phoenix field division, ATF headquarters and the Justice Department to colleagues in Mexico on the Fast and Furious program. It described the operation as “reckless,” saying it made unprecedented use of a dangerous investigative technique known as gun walking, rather than intervening and seizing the illegally purchased firearms.
The weapons, the report said, included AK-47 assault rifles, Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles, .38-caliber revolvers and FN-57 semiautomatic pistols.
According to the report, Mr. Gil and Mr. Canino called the agency’s Washington headquarters and the Phoenix field office to express their concerns about the flood of weapons “only to be brushed aside.” The report also said ATF personnel in Arizona denied ATF officials in Mexico access to crucial information about the operation.
“Rather than share information, senior leadership within both ATF and the Department of Justice (DOJ) assured their representatives in Mexico that everything was ‘under control.’ The growing number of weapons recovered in Mexico, however, indicated otherwise,” the report said.