Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, heard testimony from U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents who said their supervisors routinely prevented them from interdicting "straw buyers" who were permitted to buy mass quantities of AK-47s, 50-caliber sniper rifles and live ammunition, and transport them to Mexico.
The program, dubbed "Operation Fast and Furious," allegedly allowed the free flow of guns that ultimately would only be rediscovered at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico.
"Today's hearing concerns a breach of that trust that has left countless innocent Mexican citizens and at least one federal Border Patrol agent dead," said Issa, R-Calif.
"In 2009, BATF began allowing straw purchasers to walk guns into Mexico, believing that this initiative would help them track the use of firearms by higher-ups within the Mexican drug cartel. Guns … instead were being seized and allowed to cross the Mexican border without the knowledge of the Mexican government. …
"Over strong objection of the ATF field agents, the program continued, and approximately 2,000 AK-47s and derivatives and some 50- caliber sniper rifles and others and 10,000 or more rounds of live ammunition went into the arsenals of the Mexican drug lords."
Despite strong objections by field agents, ATF supervisors told them to stop asking the questions that would help them "connect the dots" from straw buyer to crime scene, Issa said, calling the operation one of the most "brutal" and "blatantly reckless programs" ever "conceived, authorized or executed by federal law enforcement."
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who attended the hearing, said at first the allegations "sounded too shocking to believe."
"ATF is supposed to stop criminals from trafficking guns to Mexican drug cartels or I guess anyplace else," Grassley said. "Instead, the ATF made it easier for alleged cartel middlemen to get weapons from U.S. gun dealers. Agents were actually ordered to stand by and watch these middlemen, these straw purchasers, buy hundreds upon hundreds of weapons."
The intention of the program appears to have been the identification of additional "co-conspirators," but the lawmakers attending the hearing were at a loss to explain the willful dropping of the ball ATF supervisors allegedly instructed.
Grassley said the misguided program sent the message that "trying to identify networks of traffickers is more important than seizing weapons."
ATF special agent John Dodson told the hearing rather than conduct enforcement actions, agents took notes, observed and tracked suspects' movements "but nothing more, knowing all the while, just days sometimes after these purchases, the guns that we saw these individuals buy would begin turning up at crime scenes in the United States and in Mexico, and yet we still did nothing."
"Allowing loads of weapons that we knew to be destined for criminals was the plan, this was mandate," Dodson said. "… ATF is supposed to be the guardians, the sheep dogs that protect against the wolves that prey upon us, especially along our southern border. But rather than meet the wolf head on, we sharpened his teeth, added number to his claw, all the while we sat idly by watching, tracking and noting as he became a more efficient and effective predator."
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