“It was the only way to dismantle an entire firearms-trafficking ring and stop the thousands of guns flowing to Mexico,” said William D. Newell, a veteran federal agent who spent five years as the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.
In his first public interview about the operation, Newell said he believed that he and his agents were working the largest gun-trafficking case of their careers and finally had a window into Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel. To identify cartel members, ATF agents, beginning in 2009, watched as about 2,000 weapons purchased at Phoenix gun stores hit the streets; their goal was to trace them to the cartel.
But on Dec. 14, 2010, Operation Fast and Furious came crashing down. A Border Patrol agent was killed in the Arizona desert, and two AK-47s found at the scene were linked to Newell’s sting. Agents working under him, enraged, went to lawmakers about the operation, sparking an 18-month investigation led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who called Fast and Furious “felony stupid.”
Although Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has turned over 7,600 documents related to the case, he has refused to hand over all of the Justice Department memos and e-mails that reflect internal deliberations that took place after Congress began its inquiry. The White House has invoked executive privilege in the matter. As a result, the House is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether Holder should become the first sitting attorney general to be held in contempt.
Democrats charge that the battle is political theater, backed by the National Rifle Association, to embarrass Holder and the White House in an election year. But Republicans adamantly deny that the contempt vote is about politics.
They say the issue is an attorney general whose Justice Department, in refusing to release documents, is covering up what senior officials knew, and when they knew it, about a botched gun operation that allowed thousands of firearms onto U.S. streets and into Mexico and resulted in the death of an American border agent.
Fast and Furious is the worst crisis for the ATF since the deadly 1993 confrontation with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex., and the reverberations have shaken the Justice Department. Holder has called the gun operation “flawed” and asked his inspector general to look into the matter. He has repeatedly maintained that he did not know about the tactics used until February 2011, after Congress began investigating.