Operation Fast and Furious: The Forgotten History of the ATF’s Notorious Gunwalking Scandal
By Sam Jacobs
The ATF isn’t all bad. In fact, they had a policy of letting illegal gun purchases go between 2006 and 2011. It ended up getting U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry killed on December 14, 2010, and let Mexican criminals get enough guns that they were found at over 150 crime scenes where Mexican citizens were either killed or maimed. And some of the guns were used in the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris at the Bataclan. But other than that, it turned out just fine.
(In case you’re not picking up on it, we’re laying on the sarcasm very thick right now.)
You probably know what was officially called “Project Gunrunner” as “Operation Fast and Furious.” Started under George W. Bush, this ATF policy audaciously grew under President Obama and became indicative of the perceived attack on American gun owners by both policy makers and their friends in the establishment media.
It’s one of many scandals of the Obama Administration that was never given as much press attention as, for example, Russia buying Facebook ads about NoFap and Pizzagate. Given that the guns run by the ATF were allowed to kill hundreds and that subsequent Congressional investigations resulted in Eric Holder, President Obama’s Attorney General, becoming the first sitting cabinet member to be held in criminal contempt of Congress ever, this is shocking. At least for anyone still under the illusion that the establishment media is a fair and impartial source of information.
It is a sad truth that in our world today, there are very few actual journalists. While conservatives, libertarians and patriots tend to chafe at the mere mention of journalists, it’s worth noting that independent journalists – those not in thrall to big business and big government – fulfill an extremely valuable function of telling the truth and uncovering corruption. Case in point: The Fast and Furious scandal was broken by two independent journalists: David Codrea of The War on Guns and the late Mike Vanderboegh (who holds the distinct honor of being denounced by both Bill Clinton and the Southern Poverty Law Center) of Sipsey Street Irregulars.
Indeed, when ATF agents at Clean Up ATF sought a way to secure protection for their whistleblowers, it was Codrea and Vanderboegh who put them in touch with Senator Grassley. Sharyl Attkisson and William La Jeunesse were two notable exceptions, but for the most part, the corporate media either ignored the scandal and/or claimed it was a “botched sting.” It fell on Codrea and Vanderboegh to dig deep into the scandal and get the real story.
Sit down and get ready to dig into what is perhaps the most egregious scandal of President Drone’s administration – and there’s a lot to pick from.
What Was Project Gunrunner?
Project Gunrunner was a project of the ATF, designed to intercept weapons bound for Mexican criminal organizations. The ATF (the same people who entrapped peaceful, law-abiding citizen Randy Weaver into selling them a single sawed-off shotgun, then pursued him as if he were mounting an armed insurrection, shooting and killing his wife, son and dog) decided to allow straw purchases (which are technically legal, but often involve the crime of providing false information when purchasing a firearm) to happen in the hopes that these purchases would end up in the hands of Mexican criminal organizations.
The thinking was that, rather than going after crimes considered to be small potatoes, the ATF could focus on bigger fish – organizational gun running in the Southwest and over the border in Mexico. By letting guns purchased illegally to “walk” (i.e., not be prosecuted), the federal government can keep an eye on them, arresting people for much more serious crimes later. That’s the idea, anyway, but the execution ended up being something much different.
Beginning in 2006, the Phoenix Office of the ATF not only allowed, but also facilitated and encouraged, straw purchases of firearms to known weapons traffickers. They then allowed the weapons to “walk” to Mexico. Gun Owners of America has stated that they believe this was an attempt to boost statistics for the ATF, thus securing more funding – most of the funding for this came from $40 million in competitive grants from the 2009 “stimulus package,” which was largely a giant giveaway to large banks.
(Such self-serving actions by the ATF are not unheard of. During the congressional inquiry following the ATF’s siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Henry Ruth, one of the three independent reviewers from the U.S. Treasury Department, testified that: “The ATF needed good publicity. With its appropriations hearings a week away, a successful raid this size would produce major positive headlines to counter the ATF’s reputation as a rogue agency whose debacles blackened the reputations of other agencies. And it would scare the public enough about fringe groups to create political pressure on Congress to increase its budget.”)
Some legitimate gun dealers objected to being involved in Project Gunrunner, as did some ATF agents, but they were strong-armed into participation by top brass. What’s more, the practices that became associated with Project Gunrunner were in opposition to long-established ATF operating procedures.
What Was Operation Wide Receiver?
What later became known as “Operation Fast and Furious” is actually only one operation among many under the umbrella of Project Gunrunner. Another was known as Operation Wide Receiver, which ran from early 2006 to late 2007, on George W. Bush’s watch.
In this case, a licensed firearms dealer notified the ATF of a suspicious purchase and was subsequently hired as a confidential informant. The ATF began monitoring straw purchases made through this dealer. During the operation, the dealer sold 450 weapons, including AR-15s chambered in .223, AKs chambered in 7.62×39, and Colt .38s. The lion’s share of these weapons were lost after moving south of the border – only 64 of the weapons were seized before crossing the Mexican border. Most of the cases for the prosecution were so flimsy that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was reluctant to pursue prosecution in any of them. The Bush-era Department of Justice declined to prosecute any of these cases.
The Obama Administration began prosecuting cases in 2010, three years after the project ended. Eventually, nine cases were prosecuted, all for process crimes, with one case dropped, five defendants pleading guilty, one sentenced and two remaining fugitives.
What Was Operation Fast and Furious?
As stated above, Operation Fast and Furious was only one of several such operations. The name itself, “Operation Fast and Furious,” is related to the fact that the suspects were involved in car racing together.
Operation Fast and Furious simply picked up the gunwalking practices which had been going on previously, as if they were new again. Once again, the operation began when a firearms dealer contacted the ATF about a suspicious purchase. Unlike Operation Wide Receiver, many of these purchases involved hundreds of weapons. What’s more, there was no official collaboration between the firearms dealers and the ATF. Perhaps most disturbing is that both Mexican law enforcement officials and the Mexico City Office of the ATF were left completely in the dark about what was going on.
In January 2010, the ATF applied for and received additional funding, and was reorganized as a strike force that included members of the ATF, FBI, DEA and ICE, run through the United States Attorney’s Office rather than under the jurisdiction of the ATF.
The weapons dealers started raising red flags because they kept seeing the same straw buyers over the course of months purchasing the same weapons over and over again, which is highly unusual. Standard practice is that the dealers tend to only see straw buyers again at trial, if at all. What’s more, the ATF generally arrests the straw buyer and members of the larger criminal organization at the point of transfer, confiscating the weapons in the process. Not only did this not happen under Operation Fast and Furious, but top brass within the ATF prevented agents on the ground from following standard operating procedures.
All told, by June 2010, suspects surveilled under Operation Fast and Furious had purchased over 1,600 weapons at a total spend of over $1 million. At that time – not at the end of the operation – the ATF were aware of over 300 of these weapons being found at crime scenes, 179 in Mexico and 130 in the United States.
To put it bluntly, the ATF facilitated gun trafficking that resulted in crimes on American soil.
The Death of Brian Terry
On December 14, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, along with other members of the United States Border Patrol, were on patrol about 11 miles from the Mexican border. When they came across five suspected illegal aliens, they fired bean bags and were responded to with live ammunition. During the resulting firefight, Terry was killed. Four of the suspects were arrested and two AKs found nearby were traced back to Operation Fast and Furious within hours.
The bullet that killed Terry was too damaged to be conclusively linked to the operation. The Acting Deputy Attorney General and the Deputy Chief of Staff were notified, but did not think the murder of a United States Border Patrol Agent was important enough to contact the Attorney General. Eventually, ATF Agent John Dodson contacted Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who was the major force behind investigating the ATF’s practice of gunwalking.
This effectively marked the end of Operation Fast and Furious. When all was said and done, approximately 2,000 weapons were purchased through straw buyers that the ATF let walk. Of these, 389 were recovered in the United States, 276 in Mexico, with the balance remaining on the streets. In at least one case, ATF Agent John Dodson, was directly involved in the transfer of firearms to a known weapons trafficker.
The Fate of the Furious: What Happened to All Those Guns?
Weapons transferred with ATF compliance and assistance have continued to turn up at crime scenes long after the end of Operation Fast and Furious. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has stated on the record that he believes the weapons will continue to turn up for years to come. The weapons have been used in several high-profile crimes in Mexico, including the use of a .50-cal against a Mexican police helicopter and the murder of a Mexican beauty queen.
The most noteworthy crime the weapons have been used in, however, is the coordinated Islamist attacks on Paris in 2015, including the famous attack against the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan. The ATF itself tracked weapons used in the attack to a Phoenix dealership known to be associated with Operation Fast and Furious.
There is virtually no way to know how many people and American citizens are dead because of the unethical actions of the ATF.
Congress Investigates Operation Fast and Furious
A Congressional investigation was led by Representative Darrell Issa of California, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This was done at the behest of ATF whistleblowers.
Attorney General Eric Holder claimed ignorance about the operation, something that was later called into question by a number of sources. Meanwhile, ATF Agent Vince Cefalu was fired in June 2011, likely for his role in exposing the operation to the general public. He later testified before Congress that purchases of AKs and .50-cals were happening “daily” and that nothing was done, saying, “I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest.”
Several of those in charge of the operation were promoted and transferred to Washington – not fired nor even reprimanded. U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis K. Burke admitted to leaking sensitive documents about Dodson, the chief whistleblower, to the public. Senator Grassley believes that Burke was falling on his sword to protect his superiors in the Justice Department. Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee laid the blame not on any senior officials within the ATF or the Justice Department, but squarely within the Phoenix Office.
Attorney General Eric Holder almost certainly withheld documents and concealed evidence, continuing to deny any knowledge of gunwalking. He was threatened with Contempt of Congress and strong-armed into appearing for the seventh time. A Congressional report on Holder described his view of the murder of Agent Terry as “a nuisance.” The report further stated that Holder knew about gunwalking in general and Operation Fast and Furious in particular – he even knew that the weapons involved in the shootout resulted in the death of Agent Terry – as far back as 2010. The Congressional report further accused Attorney General Holder of stonewalling Grassley’s investigation.
On June 20, 2012, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to recommend holding Holder in contempt of Congress. This was related to 1,300 pages of documents that the Department of Justice refused to hand over to Congress. Earlier that day, and at the request of close personal friend Holder, President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege for the first time during his administration.
On June 28, 2012, Holder received the dubious distinction of becoming the first sitting member of the Cabinet of the United States to be held in criminal contempt of Congress. The House voted 255-67 in favor, for Holder’s refusal to disclose internal DOJ documents in response to a Congressional subpoena. Congress, likewise, voted on a civil contempt measure by a 258-95 margin. This allows the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to go to court with a civil lawsuit testing the executive privilege claim.
In March 2017, the Justice Department’s Inspector General found that the Dallas Office of the ATF could have arrested some of the men involved in ICE Officer Jaime Zapata’s death, but refused to act.
The civil case was eventually settled in 2019, with the Justice Department agreeing to release more documents at long last.
The ATF’s budget is currently frozen at 2016 levels (an effective budget cut given inflation and built-in increased expenses, like salaries and rent) and it does not have a Senate-approved director, in part because of this scandal and what some believe is a Trump Administration directive to slowly choke off the government alphabet agency – which is one of the most hated among his base.
As a parting thought: It is worth noting that this is the worst thing that the ATF has been caught doing since the attack on Randy Weaver’s family or the incineration of women and children at Waco. This raises the important question of what it is that they’re doing that we don’t currently know about.