William Newell, who started and oversaw "Fast and Furious," views the operation — now widely condemned — as an example of smart law enforcement.

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WASHINGTON — The “Fast and Furious” gunrunning 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 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

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 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 Newell, a veteran federal agent who spent five years as the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Phoenix.

Newell said he believed 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, with the goal of tracing them to the cartel.

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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 operation. 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.”

While Holder has turned over to Congress 7,600 documents related to the case, he has refused to turn over all of the Justice Department memos and emails that reflect internal deliberations that took place after Congress began its investigation. The Obama administration 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 administration in an election year. But Republicans deny the contempt vote is about politics.

Operation was approved

Fast and Furious is the worst crisis for the ATF since the deadly 1993 confrontation in Waco, Texas, and the reverberations have shaken the Justice Department. Holder has called the gun operation “flawed” and asked his inspector general to investigate. 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 case. But plenty of other officials in the ATF and the Phoenix U.S. Attorney’s Office did — and approved it, Newell said.

In fall 2009, the Justice Department was pressuring Newell and his agents to combat drug cartels in Mexico by identifying and eliminating the pipelines that were being 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 and transfer them up the hierarchy of the cartels.

The small-time gunrunners, known as “hormigas,” the Spanish word for ants, were merely fined.

Newell’s office developed a plan: To identify the drug networks, his agents would track — but not arrest — straw buyers. The agents could then 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 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. Justice officials also signed off on wiretap applications, although the applications did not indicate a description of the tactics used, according to Democratic lawmakers who have seen them.

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

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

Newell added that he and his agents were hamstrung by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He said prosecutors told him that in most of their straw-purchaser cases, his agents’ hands were tied. They did not have probable cause to arrest the straw buyers because the men purchased the guns legally, and it was difficult to prove they were committing a crime by giving the gun to someone else.

Newell said 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 supervisors not to move in and question the buyers but to let the guns go and see where they ended up. They called their actions “gun-walking.”

The fallout begins

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 him as the months went by and agents watched hundreds of guns enter the suspected cartel pipeline.

In December 2010, after Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was gunned down near the Mexico border, several agents went to Sen. Charles 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, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to begin an investigation and subpoena thousands of documents from the Justice Department.

Before the investigation began, Newell said the former acting director of the ATF, Kenneth Melson, had praised him about Fast and Furious. But when Congress began investigating, Melson stopped calling. To this day, no senior Justice official has talked to Newell, 46, about Fast and Furious, and his bosses at ATF have never publicly defended him

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

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 southwest border will be much longer-lasting.

The chance to deeply penetrate a Mexican drug cartel and bring down its trafficking pipelines is gone, Newell said. Federal agents will be forced to stick to the 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.”

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