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Over the course of about a year, it appears that "in total, some 1,725 weapons appear to have been involved," with weapons subsequently showing up in both the United States and Mexico (Cochran 2011).
Operation Fast and Furious first raised the interest and ire of the public in June 2010, when a document showed that the ATF had lets at least 309 guns walk before subsequently losing track of them (Cochran 2011). The practice of allowing straw purchasers to complete their purchase in order to track the gun had been done before, but the lack of oversight and communication seen in Operation Fast and Furious meant that the process of tracking these weapons suffered a fatal breakdown, so that they were ultimately lost until they showed up again at the scenes of crimes. It was this scenario that ultimately ignited the firestorm of controversy now surrounding the program, because in December of 2010, six months after the government acknowledged at least a portion of the missing guns, "Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was fatally shot with an AK-47 rifle in Arizona, near Rio Rico," and his assailant had been a member of the Sinaloa Cartel using "a weapon that was part of the Operation Fast and Furious sting" (Cochran 2011). More than anything this brought the issue to the fore, and adding an extra layer of irony and tragedy to an earlier revelation: in September of 2011, the New York Post reported than far from simply surveying straw purchases, "an ATF agent had been ordered by superiors to buy firearms and then intentionally resell them to Mexican drug cartel representatives" in what was later described as "an odd, deadly intended entrapment operation" (Cochran 2011, de la Isla 1). By the next month, Congressional hearings on the operation had begun.
Congressional hearings on Operation Fast and Furious, and in particular the extent to which high-level officials were aware of its existence and the particulars of the program, began under Representative Darrel Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and are continuing to this day (Decker & Mattingly 2011). In particular, Attorney General Eric Holder has provided seemingly inconsistent or at least puzzling accounts as to the extent of his knowledge regarding Operation Fast and Furious. According to Kenneth Melson, the head of the ATF at the time, he was unaware of the operation and thus was unable to tell the Attorney General about it, who has likewise claimed that "he didn't recall knowing about the program until public controversy about it" (Decker & Mattingly 2011). However, this seemingly conflicts with the account of Lanny Breuer, the "head of the Justice Department's criminal division," who "was told in April 2010 that Arizona-based agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had allowed a gun trafficking ring to buy hundreds of weapons and send them to Mexico as part of an investigative tactic," and although "the briefing received by Mr. Breuer did not involve Operation Fast and Furious," it did cover the earlier program Wide Receiver, and Breuer "told aides to brief ATF leaders that agents in Arizona had used problematic tactics" (Savage 2011). Depending on who is to be believed, this briefing of ATF leaders apparently did not extend to the head of the ATF at the time.
The furor surrounding Operation Fast and Furious stems from two related but distinct criticisms. Firstly, the idea that the division of the government explicitly tasked with controlling and ensuring the safety of firearms would intentionally lose (and even sell) thousands of them to a Mexican drug cartel is atrocious on its face, because it appears like such a simple and obvious tactical failure that critics cannot help but to wonder in regards to what other incompetencies might be covered up, especially since at least "400 guns disappeared as part of Wide Receiver," predating Fast and Furious and demonstrating the difficulty of maintaining the trace of guns once they have entered the illicit market (Savage 2011). The example of operation Wide Receiver is especially damning, because it reveals that the ATF lost guns in the past, and apparently had no problem with it so long as the public was unaware of these losses. This reveals a cultural problem within the Justice Department, because this means that either no one in the ATF realized the potential issues with programs like Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious, or that someone did notice and their concerns were disregarded. The latter seems to be the case, as investigations have revealed that Fast and Furious "was controversial because some agents believed that their supervisors, bent on identifying ringleaders, were not letting them move quickly to bust low-level straw purchasers and get guns off the street" (Savage 2011). As will be discussed later, even when straw purchasers were arrested, these arrests were done in such a way as to undercut the entire point of Fast and Furious in the first place, further demonstrating a lack of effective communication.
The case of Brian Terry, the Border Patrol agent murdered with a gun from Operation Fast and Furious, leads to the second, somewhat more fundamental criticism, which is that the very people tasked with preventing violence and crime have, whether intentionally or not, aided the murder of numerous innocent people, so that while "the hearing[s], thus far, seem to dwell on the number of weapons, […] the more important unasked question is how many innocents were killed, wounded, injured or suffered through use of these weapons" (de la Isla 1). This question is not merely hypothetical, because the guns can be traced once they have been used in a crime, and in some cases, these guns were actually directly supplied by the ATF, instead of merely being allowed to cross the border without intervention. While one may regard both cases as an abrogation of duty, the former situation removes even that little bit of distance between the ATF and the actual crime because "the facts show more than merely a passively observant federal agency" (Cochran 2011).
Despite the failures of Operation Fast and Furious in preventing the trafficking of guns across the border or the subsequent use of those guns in crimes, it must be noted that the operation did lead to some arrests, although that will be little consolation to those critics of the program and the Justice Department. Nonetheless, these arrests must be considered in order to appreciate the full impact of the operation, because they represent a further lack of due diligence on the part of the Justice Department, revealing some of the pervasive structural and cultural problems which seem to have led to the instigation and maintenance of Operation Fast and Furious in the first place.
In particular, "in March or 2011 Mayor Eddie Espinoza, Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega, Columbus Councilman Woody Gutierrez, and a host of other residents of Columbus and Palomas [in New Mexico] were arrested in a sting operation for gun running to the drug cartels," a sting operation that was later revealed to be a component of Operation Fast and Furious (Nunez Neumann 48). Even then, however, the arrest of Espinoza and the others represents a kind of inversion of the stated goal of Operation Fast and Furious, which was to track the guns to higher-level cartel members. Instead, "in a rather distorted series of thought patterns, various agencies, including, but not limited to, the FBI, DEA, and ATF were on one hand paying the cartel figures, and then on the other hand pursuing them," because the arrest of Espinoza and the others, who functioned as straw purchasers for the cartels, was only made possible due to the fact "that the FBI paid at least six Mexican Drug Cartel figures, involved in the gun smuggling, as informants" (Nunez Neumann 49).
Thus, in much the same way that law enforcement agencies often claim to only be interested in drug dealers and not users when the vast majority of arrests and incarcerations are of drug users, so too did the United States law enforcement agencies involved in Operation Fast and Furious subvert their own intended plan by going after the straw purchasers instead of higher-level cartel members, and in particular straw purchasers who otherwise would not have been so heavily involved in the gun trafficking organization had the FBI not allowed it to continue. As of now there is little evidence regarding the extent to which different agencies communicated and worked together on the issue of gun trafficking, but it is entirely reasonable to presume that the FBI and ATF might not have even been completely aware of the other agency's operation, especially considering the fact that the testimony provided by any high level officials seems to suggest that no one really knew what anyone else was doing outside their immediate vicinity. Thus, while Operation Fast and Furious did result in some convictions, even then the program seems…[continue]
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