Investigators Find Five Senior ATF Officials Responsible For Fast And Furious

Republican congressional investigators have concluded that five top ATF officials are collectively responsible for the failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation that has being described as being “marred by missteps, poor judgments and inherently reckless strategy.”

The investigators discovered new evidence that agents from the Phoenix Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sought to hide from the Mexican government the fact that two Fast and Furious firearms were recovered after the murder of the brother of a Mexican state attorney general.

The report alleges that there was some Justice Department involvement, notably that Kenneth E. Melson, then acting ATF director, was made into a “scapegoat” for Fast and Furious after he told congressional Republicans that his Justice Department supervisors  “were doing more damage control than anything” else once Fast and Furious became public.

“My view is that the whole matter of the department’s response in this case was a disaster,” Melson told the investigators.

The Fast and Furious program allowed some 2,500 illegal gun sales in Arizona which agents planned to track back to Mexican drug cartels. The program began in fall 2009 and was halted after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010. Most of the weapons had been lost by then, and two were recovered at the scene of his slaying.

The five ATF managers that the report lays the blame on, have since moved to other positions, and have either defended Fast and Furious in congressional testimony or refused to discuss it. At the Justice Department, senior officials, including Holder, have steadfastly maintained that Fast and Furious was confined to the Arizona border region and that Washington was never aware of the flawed tactics.

The joint staff report, authored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was highly critical of the ATF supervisors.

They found that William Newell, the special agent-in-charge in Phoenix, exhibited “repeatedly risky” management and “consistently pushed the envelope of permissible investigative techniques.” The report said “he had been reprimanded … before for crossing the line, but under a new administration and a new attorney general he reverted back to the use of risky gunwalking tactics.”

His boss, Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations William McMahon, “rubber stamped critical documents that came across his desk without reading them,” the report alleged. “In McMahon’s view it was not his job to ask any questions about what was going on in the field.” and that McMahon gave “false testimony” to Congress about signing applications for wiretap intercepts in Fast and Furious.

His supervisor, Mark Chait, assistant director for field operations, “played a surprisingly passive role during the operation,” the report said. “He failed to provide oversight that his experience should have dictated and his position required.”

Above Chait was Deputy Director William Hoover, who the report said ordered an exit strategy to scuttle Fast and Furious but never followed through: “Hoover was derelict in his duty to ensure that public safety was not jeopardized.”

They said Melson, a longtime career Justice official, “often stayed above the fray” instead of bringing Fast and Furious to an “end sooner.”

ATF agents say that they were hamstrung by federal prosecutors in Arizona from  obtaining criminal charges for illegal gun sales, and that Melson “even offered to travel to Phoenix to write the indictments himself. Still, he never ordered it be shut down.”

In the November 2010 slaying in Mexico of Mario Gonzalez, the brother of Patricia Gonzalez, then attorney general for the state of Chihuahua, two of 16 weapons were traced back to Fast and Furious after they were recovered from a shootout with Mexican police. 10 days later, ATF Agent Tonya English urged Agent Hope MacAllister and their supervisor, David J. Voth, to keep it under wraps. “My thought is not to release any information,” she told them in an email.

The following month, Agent Terry was killed south of Tucson. Voth emailed back, “Ugh … things will most likely get ugly.”


Chief Suspect of ‘Fast and Furious’ Probe Released Not Once But Twice

Manuel Celis-Acosta, the chief suspect in the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” investigation was not only caught and released at the U.S.-Mexico border in May 2010, but also two months earlier while in possession of a Colt .38-caliber pistol purchased illegally via the gun-tracking operation.

Officials could have brought about a swift end to the “Fast and Furious” operation. Twice they declined to take action on opportunities to charge Celis-Acosta with felony offenses, instead the investigation dragged on for months, with the loss of about 1,700 U.S. firearms on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a letter to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., two top congressional investigators demanded answers as to why Celis-Acosta was twice permitted to dodge arrest. It was sent by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Fast and Furious was launched Oct. 31, 2009, and ran up until a month after a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed in December 2010. Two assault weapons linked to the “Fast and Furious” op were recovered after his slaying near the border.

The congressional leaders said they learned of the gun arrest from a list of “Overt Acts” of gun-smuggling suspects that was compiled by an ATF official during Fast and Furious.

“On April 2, 2010,” states one notation on the list, “a firearm purchased by Patino on March 26, 2010, was recovered by law enforcement officials and was possessed by Celis-Acosta.” The item gave no further information about the incident.

By March 26, 2010, Patino had allegedly illegally purchased at least 434 weapons under Fast and Furious from cooperating gun dealers in the Phoenix area. The ATF says he eventually purchased a total of 720 weapons, more than any other person who illegally purchased weapons in the program.

Two months later, on May 29, 2010, Celis-Acosta was again stopped and questioned in Lukeville, Ariz., by the top ATF agent working the Fast and Furious investigation. He was driving a BMW with 74 live rounds of ammunition and nine cellphones allegedly hidden inside. ATF Special Agent Hope MacAllister released him after he promised to cooperate in her investigation.

Patino and Celis-Acosta are among 19 people indicted in January 2010 in Fast and Furious. Both have pleaded not guilty.

U.S. Agents Laundering Mexican Drug Cartel Profits

According to current and former federal law enforcement officials undercover American narcotics agents have laundered millions of dollars in Mexican drug cartel money.

Agents, primarily with the Drug Enforcement Agency, have helped ship hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal cash across borders, those officials said, in an attempt to figure out how criminal organizations move their money, where they keep their assets and who their leaders are. The money is deposited in accounts designated by traffickers, or in shell accounts set up by agents. As it launders the drug proceeds, the D.E.A. often allows cartels to continue their operations over months or even years before making seizures or arrests. Questions are obviously being raised about the agency’s effectiveness (or lack thereof) in bringing down drug kingpins and the whether these actions constitute facilitation of a crime.

Michael S. Vigil, a former senior agency official who is currently working for a private contracting company called Mission Essential Personnel, said, “We tried to make sure there was always close supervision of these operations so that we were accomplishing our objectives, and agents weren’t laundering money for the sake of laundering money.”

Another former agency official, who asked not to be identified speaking publicly about delicate operations, said, “My rule was that if we are going to launder money, we better show results. Otherwise, the D.E.A. could wind up being the largest money launderer in the business, and that money results in violence and deaths.”

Concerns are warranted especially in light of the A.T.F’s operation Fast and Furious in which low-level smugglers were allowed to buy and transport guns across the border in the hope that they would lead to higher-level operatives working for Mexican cartels. After the agency lost track of hundreds of weapons, some later turned up in Mexico; two were found on the United States side of the border where an American Border Patrol agent had been shot to death.

Another former drug agency official offered this explanation for the laundering operations: “Building up the evidence to connect the cash to drugs, and connect the first cash pickup to a cartel’s command and control, is a very time consuming process. These people aren’t running a drugstore in downtown L.A. that we can go and lock the doors and place a seizure sticker on the window. These are sophisticated, international operations that practice very tight security. And as far as the Mexican cartels go, they operate in a corrupt country, from cities that the cops can’t even go into.”

One D.E.A. official said it was not unusual for American agents to pick up two or three loads of Mexican drug money each week. A second official said that as Mexican cartels extended their operations from Latin America to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, the reach of the operations had grown as well. When asked how much money had been laundered as a part of the operations, the official would only say, “A lot.”

“If you’re going to get into the business of laundering money,” the official added, “then you have to be able to launder money.”

Former counternarcotics officials, who also would speak only on the condition of anonymity offered a clearer glimpse into the scale of these operations and how they worked. In some cases, the officials said, Mexican agents, posing as smugglers and accompanied by American authorities, pick up traffickers’ cash in Mexico. American agents then transport the cash on government flights to the United States, where it is deposited into traffickers’ accounts, and then wired to companies that provide goods and services to the cartel.

In other cases, D.E.A. agents, posing as launderers, pick up drug proceeds in the United States, deposit them in banks in this country and then wire them to the traffickers in Mexico.

So far there are few signs that these laundering operations have disrupted the cartels’ operations, as well as little evidence that Mexican drug traffickers are feeling any serious financial pain. Last year, the D.E.A. seized about $1 billion in cash and drug assets, while Mexico seized an estimated $26 million in money laundering investigations, a minute fraction of the estimated $18 billion to $39 billion in drug money that flows between the countries each year.







Border Agent’s Death tied to ATF operation “Fast and Furious”

The murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Mexico last year has been linked to an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) operation that allegedly allowed hundreds of guns to flow into Mexico across the U.S. border.

Investigators at the ATF called the operation in which agents would follow the guns from the U.S. into the hands of Mexican drug cartels “Fast and Furious”. Members of Congress say that weapons found at the scene of  Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s death have been traced to the federal program.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversees the ATF, tried to explain what he knew about the episode at two hearings on Capitol Hill.

“You have to understand the way in which the department operates,” Holder said. “Although there are [a lot of] operations, this one … has gotten a great deal of publicity.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) interrupted Holder, saying that “There are dead Americans as a result of this failed and reckless program, so I would say that it hasn’t gotten enough attention,”. Issa leads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,  and is trying to figure out how the gun-running investigation went off track and whether top Justice Department leaders approved it in advance.

Congressional investigators traveled to Arizona, where people allegedly working with drug gangs illegally purchased more than 1,000 guns. Many of those guns were later found at crime scenes on both sides of the border.

Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley said “At best, the ATF was careless in authorizing the sale of thousands of guns to straw purchasers,” and “At worst, our own government knowingly participated in arming criminals, drug cartels and those who later killed federal agents.”

Congressional Republicans say that over a dozen whistleblowers have come forward with concerns about Operation Fast and Furious, including ATF agents, supervisors, and  an Arizona gun dealer.

The unnamed dealer sent e-mails to agents in Arizona last year, six months before Terry’s death, warning them that he had a bad feeling. The dealer said he was worried the guns would make their way to Mexico and be used by “bad guys.”