Witnesses are sworn in at a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on "Operation Fast and Furious: The Other Side of the Border," in July 2011. Former ATF special agent in charge William Newell is second from the right. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

The “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation has been widely condemned by Republicans, Democrats and even top officials at the Justice Department as a failed sting. The case has led to the ouster of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, President Obama’s first use of executive privilege and a probable vote of contempt Thursday against the attorney general.

But in the eyes of the man who started and oversaw Fast and ­Furious, the operation remains an example of smart law enforcement — an approach that has simply been misunderstood.

“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.

According to Newell, there is no evidence that Holder or any high-ranking Justice Department official knew the ins and outs of his gun operation. But plenty of other officials at the ATF and in the Phoenix U.S. attorney’s office did — and approved it, Newell said.

A plan to fight cartels

In the fall of 2009, the Justice Department was putting pressure on Newell and his agents to combat Mexican cartels by identifying and eliminating the pipelines used to move guns across the border. There were calls in Washington to bring down the trafficking network, not just the people on the lowest rung — the “straw purchasers” who buy guns legally, then transfer them up the hierarchy of the cartels.

The small-time gunrunners, known as “hormigas,” the Spanish word for ants, were simply slapped with small fines.

Newell’s office developed a plan: To identify the drug networks, his agents would track — but not arrest — straw buyers. The agents could follow them and their associates, wiretap conversations, and possibly charge more senior cartel members with serious crimes such as conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering.

The plan was permitted under ATF rules, had the legal backing of U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke in Phoenix, was approved by Newell’s ATF superiors and was funded by a regional task force of the Justice Department, ATF’s parent agency.

Newell scoffs when he hears lawmakers and others call the tactics “controversial.” Three similar operations had been tried during the George W. Bush administration by the same ATF field office, including a Tucson plan dubbed Operation Wide Receiver that involved many fewer guns, about 300.

“The notion that there was a secret tactic is totally absurd,” Newell said.

He says he and his agents were hamstrung by the U.S. attorney’s office. He said prosecutors told him that in most of their straw-buyer cases, they did not have probable cause to arrest the suspects. The suspects had purchased the guns legally, and it was difficult to prove that they were committing a crime by giving the guns to someone else.

“The real problem here is that existing laws create the impossible situation of requiring proof of a gun buyer’s intent at the point of sale,” said Paul Pelletier of Mintz Levin, a former Justice Department lawyer and Newell’s attorney. “As every senior ATF official testified . . . enactment of a gun-trafficking statue would serve to plug the loophole exploited by the Fast and Furious straw buyers.”

Newell says he never told his agents to “let guns walk.” Instead, he said, he told them they had to have sufficient evidence to satisfy the prosecutors that they had probable cause to seize the guns.

His agents told a different story to a congressional committee. They testified that they were instructed by their supervisors not to move in and question the buyers, but to let the guns go and see where they eventually ended up. They called their actions “gun-walking.”

Agents’ complaints

What Newell didn’t count on was that the agents working Fast and Furious on the ground were outraged by the operation. He said he wasn’t aware of complaints of gun-walking or the mutiny brewing below.

In December 2010, after Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was gunned down near the Mexican border, several agents went to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). They said they had warned their direct supervisors that an agent or officer could be killed by one of the guns they were letting go.

“It’s hard to see the wisdom of letting hundreds of guns disperse into criminal hands and failing to keep track,” Grassley said this week.

Grassley teamed up with Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to launch an investigation and subpoena thousands of documents from the Justice Department.

Before the inquiry, Newell said, the former acting ATF director, Kenneth Melson, praised him for Fast and Furious. But when Congress began investigating, Melson stopped calling. To this day, no senior Justice Department official has talked to Newell about Fast and Furious, and his bosses at ATF have never publicly defended him.

Efforts to reach Melson through his attorney were unsuccessful.

Newell has been called a liar and “Gunwalker Bill” by conservative bloggers and chastised by members of Congress.

At a packed congressional hearing in July, lawmakers grilled Newell, demanding to know who authorized Fast and Furious and peppering him with stinging criticism. He acknowledged that he could have been a better manager; he could have stressed to his superiors the growing number of firearms involved in the case and argued that his agents had enough evidence to seize more guns.

“His actions contributed to deaths and an ongoing public safety hazard,” said Frederick R. Hill, a spokesman for Issa.

Picking up the pieces

Newell, 46, says he is trying to pick up the pieces of a broken career.

Once a rising star at ATF who had spent a decade immersed in the gun wars on the southwestern border, Newell lost his job as special agent in charge of the Phoenix office, as well as a promotion to be the agency’s attache in Mexico. The 24-year veteran was transferred to ATF headquarters in Washington, while his wife and sons have stayed in Arizona.

“The pressure I have been under over the last several months has been nothing like I have ever experienced,” he wrote in a letter to Congress. “This inquiry and the way it has been handled has taken a physical toll on my family, me and the dedicated men and women who continue to pursue the goals of this investigation.”

A handful of Justice and ATF officials have been reassigned or removed from their posts as a result of Fast and Furious. But Newell said the fallout on the border will be much longer-lasting.

The chance to deeply penetrate a Mexican drug cartel and bring down its trafficking pipelines is gone, he said. Federal agents will now be forced to stick to smaller, easier and more inconsequential gun cases, away from operations that could have a significant impact on the flow of guns to Mexico.

“To this day, I strongly believe that we were doing our best to have the greatest impact on a very serious problem — firearms trafficking to Mexico,” Newell said. “We were trying to cut off the head of the snake.”