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Report Blames ATF Agents For Botched Gun-Trafficking Operation

A report by congressional Republicans places new blame for the botched gun-trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious at the feet of federal agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who failed to share information and coordinate with sister law enforcement agencies.

The report distributed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, says ATF agents and supervisors should have realized two targets of their criminal case along the Southwest border had already been under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI.

The associates of the violent Sinaloa, Mexico, cartel ultimately became "national security assets," or paid confidential informants of the FBI, and therefore were essentially shielded from prosecution.

"This means that the entire goal of Fast and Furious — to target these two individuals and bring them to justice — was a failure," the Issa report said. "ATF's discovery that the primary targets of their investigation were not indictable was 'a major disappointment.' "

The report also says prosecutors in the criminal division of the Justice Department in Washington should have carefully reviewed sworn statements filed alongside wiretap applications in the Fast and Furious investigation. But, as was their practice at the time, they did not do so — failing to take notice of troubling details about ATF agents observing purchases of guns that were handed over to suspicious people and then recovered inside Mexico's borders as soon as a day later.

Attorney General On Capitol Hill

Issa released the report as Attorney General Eric Holder heads to Capitol Hill on Thursday to answer questions for the sixth time about the debacle. Fast and Furious broke into public view after the December 2010 death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Two guns connected to the botched gun-trafficking operation were found near the body of Brian Terry, igniting two congressional probes and an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general.

For his part, according to prepared testimony and Justice sources, Holder is likely to emphasize a series of reforms the Justice Department has imposed in the aftermath of the scandal, including a management shake-up at ATF, new layers of oversight for cases involving gun trafficking and confidential informants, and stiffer reviews of letters that go from Justice to Congress. The department took the extraordinary step of withdrawing a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to lawmakers because it contained inaccuracies about whether American guns were allowed to flow into Mexico.

Holder says he wants to work with Congress to draft new laws to go after the flow of illegal weapons along the border, not to engage in "cynical finger pointing" and "gotcha" games.

Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, issued their own report on Fast and Furious earlier this week. That report all but absolved the Obama Justice Department of responsibility for the botched operation and localized the problem to the ATF and the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix, both of which have been the focus of management shake-ups and resignations since the congressional investigations began a year ago.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.