(Border Patrol Chaplain Mark A. Vander Lee pauses at the memorial service for slain agent Brian Terry on Jan. 21, in Tucson, Ariz.)
One of the frightening things about the U.S. government's war on drugs is that it is being waged by federal bureaucracies. The legend of Elliot Ness notwithstanding, this implies that it is not only fraught with ineptitude but that before it is all over, there are going to be a lot of avoidable deaths.
Witness "Operation Fast and Furious," a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms plan that allegedly facilitated the flow of high-powered weapons into Mexico in the hope that it might lead to the take-down of a major cartel. It did not. But it may have fueled a spike in the murder rate and led to the death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
ATF agents are trained to tail buyers of multiple high-powered weapons and find out what they do with them. Fast and Furious broke with this practice, according to a 51-page joint staff report released Wednesday by Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa). It cites ATF agents who testified that the plan was to let the buyers disappear, to later recover the weapons at crime scenes, and then to use the serial numbers to identify where they came from. This was supposed to lead to the arrest of not only the Arizona "straw" buyer who had made the purchase for the capos, but to the bust of the big players in drug-trafficking organizations.
The ATF told me that it "can not comment on any of the allegations brought by the Issa-Grassley oversight committee" due to an ongoing investigation, and the Department of Justice did not return a request for comment. But as described in the report, the idea had two major flaws. First, it assumed that it didn't matter who got murdered with those weapons before they were recovered. Second, it was built on the theory that the operation could haul in the big fish. According to the report, the feds were wrong on both counts.
For the local gun merchants who cooperated with the feds and for some of the ATF agents in Arizona, the plan was dubious from the start. An estimated 2,000 of these guns disappeared over the 14-month period of Fast and Furious, and the agents who testified said that this contradicted everything they had learned about never letting a gun "walk"—that is, be taken by a suspicious purchaser without following him and finding out where it went.
One agent described his frustration: "Every day being out here watching a guy go into the same gun store buying another 15 or 20 AK-47s or variants or . . . five or tenDraco pistols or FN Five-seveNs . . . guys that don't have a job, and he is walking in here spending $27,000 for three Barrett .50 calibers . . . and you are sitting there every day and you can't do anything." Agents say that their concerns, expressed to supervisors, were rebuffed. There was even a threat of dismissal if they didn't get with the program.
At the same time, violence was spiking in Mexico. In an email dated April 2, 2010, the group's supervisor reported that in the month of March "our subjects" had purchased 359 firearms and that 958 people were killed in Mexico in drug violence. It was the bloodiest month since 2005 and included 11 policemen in the state of Sinaloa. As another agent interviewed for the staff report said: "We were all sick to death when we realized . . . what was going on or when we saw what was going on by the trends. We were all just, yes, we were all distraught."
Well, not all. The agents interviewed say supervisors viewed the bloodshed with chilling indifference—or worse. As the report summarizes, "An increase of crimes and deaths in Mexico caused an increase in the recovery of weapons at crime scenes. When these weapons traced back through the Suspect Gun Database to weapons that were walked under Fast and Furious, supervisors in Phoenix were giddy at the success of their operation."
Agents say that the loss of life and worries that the guns might eventually be used on U.S. personnel were not addressed because supervisors thought their plan was working. The "sentiment" from higher-ups, according to one agent's testimony, was "if you are going to make an omelet, you need to scramble some eggs." It was only when Agent Terry was murdered and two AK-47s that had "walked" were found at the scene, that the operation came under scrutiny. The ATF subsequently arrested a number of straw purchasers but none of those arrests involved "key players of a criminal syndicate," according to the report. For the record, an ATF official in the report says that the bureau never let guns "walk."
By any measure the 40-year-old war on drugs has been a failure. One unintended consequence is the financing that the sale of prohibited substances provides to gangsters who then buy guns. That's bad enough. But when the ATF puts making the big cartel bust above human life, it's a new low.