Operation Fast and Furious "is a mistake that could have and should have been prevented," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the operation. The battle has hobbled the case that individuals inside ATF say held the promise of becoming one of the agency's...

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PHOENIX —

They came from all over the country, agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, brought here in a bold new effort to shut down the flow of U.S. guns to Mexican drug cartels.

It was called Operation Fast and Furious, after a popular movie about street-car racing.

But from the beginning, much of the fury was inside the agency itself.

On his first day undercover, John Dodson, who had been an ATF agent for seven years in Virginia, sat in a Chevy Impala with Olindo Casa, an 18-year veteran from Chicago. They watched a suspected gun trafficker buy 10 semiautomatic rifles from a Phoenix gun store and followed him to the house of another suspected trafficker. All of their training told them to seize the guns.

The agents called their superior and asked for the order to “take him.” The answer came back swiftly, instructing them to stay in the car. The message was clear: Let the guns go.

This was all part of an ambitious new strategy allowing Fast and Furious agents to follow the paths of guns from illegal buyers known as “straw purchasers” through middlemen and into the hierarchy of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel.

But Dodson and Casa were confused and upset. Yet it happened again, day after day, month after month.

A year later, a Border Patrol agent was killed in an incident Dec. 14, 2010, in which Fast and Furious guns were found at the scene. And it was later revealed that the operation had allowed more than 2,000 weapons to hit the streets.

It is the agency’s biggest debacle since the deadly 1993 confrontation in Waco, Texas. What began as a mutiny inside ATF’s Phoenix office has blown up into a Capitol Hill donnybrook that is rocking the Justice Department.

“This is a mistake that could have and should have been prevented,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the operation.

The battle has hobbled Fast and Furious, a case that individuals inside ATF say held the promise of becoming one of the agency’s best investigations ever.

“We have never been up so high in the Sinaloa cartel, the largest and most powerful drug cartel in the world,” said a federal official involved in the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is an open, ongoing investigation. It is so unfair.”

Going for the gun pipelines

On Oct. 26, 2009, the directors of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and ATF and the top federal prosecutors in the Southwestern border states met with the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department to plot strategy for combating Mexican cartels. A key problem: the tens of thousands of guns coming from the United States to arm the drug traffickers.

Agents along the border had long been frustrated by what one ATF supervisor later called “toothless” laws that made it difficult to attack gun-trafficking networks. Straw buyers — with no criminal record who purchase guns for criminals or illegal immigrants who can’t legally buy them — are subject to little more than paperwork violations.

Even people convicted of buying AK-47s meant for the cartels typically just get probation for lying on a federal form attesting that they were buying the guns for themselves. With such a light penalty, it is hard to persuade those caught to turn informant against their bosses. And federal prosecutors rarely want to bring such charges because they do not consider the effort worth their time, according to ATF supervisors.

Instead of emphasizing the seizure of weapons in individual cases, the new strategy focused on identifying and eliminating the pipelines that moved the weapons. The goal was to bring down the trafficking network, not just the people on the lowest rung.

The task of implementation had gone to Bill Newell, the head of ATF’s Phoenix office, and his senior managers. Newell was a 20-year veteran who had worked the border for a decade and speaks fluent Spanish.

To identify the networks, the agents would watch and document as the straw buyers transferred guns to middlemen. The agents would be instructed not to move in and question the men but to let the guns go and see where they eventually ended up.

By not immediately arresting the straw buyers, the agents could follow them and their associates, wiretapping conversations, and possibly charge them with serious crimes such as conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering.

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

In drug-trafficking cases, investigating agents, by law, cannot let drugs “walk” onto the street. Since gun sales are legal, agents on surveillance are not required to step in and stop weapons from hitting the streets and must have probable cause to make an arrest.

In November 2009, Newell’s agents in “Group 7,” one of the squads in the office, began following a particularly busy suspected gun trafficker. In 24 days, he bought 34 firearms. The next month, the man and his associates bought 212 more.

The case began to grow exponentially, with more than two dozen suspected straw purchasers. It was named Fast and Furious because the suspects operated out of a sprawling auto-repair shop and raced cars on the streets, like Vin Diesel, the star of the movie.

Mutiny was brewing

But a mutiny was brewing in Group 7. Dodson, Casa and two other agents were furious about letting the guns walk. Many of the agents had been sent in from outside Phoenix and were working together for the first time under David Voth, a Marine Corps veteran and brand-new supervisor sent in from Minnesota.

Every day, Dodson and the other agents watched and stewed while straw purchasers bought boxes of guns and sometimes took weapons to houses and to cars waiting in parking lots. Each time the agents called in to supervisors, they were told to stand down.

ATF agents stationed in Mexico were also raising objections, according to a congressional report that was released Tuesday. Darren Gil, ATF attaché to Mexico, and his deputy, Carlos Canino, were alarmed by the large number of weapons being recovered at bloody crime scenes in Mexico and being traced to Phoenix.

ATF and Justice didn’t tell Mexican officials about the 15-month operation until it became public, according to the report.

In May 2010, Dodson asked his supervisors whether they “were prepared to attend the funeral of a slain agent or officer after he or she was killed with one of those straw-purchased firearms.”

Dodson later told a congressional committee that Voth responded to the complaints by saying, “If you are going to make an omelet, you need to scramble some eggs.”

Voth denies making that comment.

Late on the evening of Dec. 14, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and other officers were patrolling Peck Canyon, in the Arizona desert about 11 miles inside the Mexican border. The region was a hotbed for bandits who ambushed illegal immigrants.

Suddenly, the group got into a firefight with five suspected illegal immigrants. At first, Terry and the officers fired beanbag guns, an FBI report said. But the suspects fired assault weapons. Then the agents used live ammunition.

Terry was fatally shot in the melee. Investigators made four arrests and found two AK-47 semiautomatic rifles nearby.

Within hours, the news spread inside ATF: The serial numbers on the two rifles matched guns bought by one of the Fast and Furious suspects a year before, outside Phoenix. The bullet that killed Terry was so damaged that neither of the firearms could be definitively linked to his killing, according to a law-enforcement official in the case.

Dodson said he tried to contact ATF headquarters, ATF’s chief counsel, the ATF ethics section and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

When he didn’t get an immediate response, he and other agents reached out to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The public first learned about Fast and Furious in late January this year when U.S. Attorney Burke called a news conference in Phoenix to announce a 53-count indictment involving 20 suspects. The indictment alleged that from September 2009 to December 2010, the suspects bought hundreds of firearms to be illegally exported to Mexico.

To Newell, who was also at the news conference, Fast and Furious was a “phenomenal case,” the largest-ever Mexican gun-trafficking investigation, a direct answer to the call to stem the flow of firearms south of the border.

A local reporter asked Newell about the rumors that ATF agents had purposely allowed firearms to enter Mexico.

“Hell, no!” he answered. Newell said that they could not follow everyone and that sometimes suspects would elude agents, which could result in guns getting into Mexico.

Peter Forcelli, an ATF group supervisor in the Phoenix office, watched the news conference on television. “I was appalled,” he later testified to Congress. “Because it was a blatant lie.”

Two days later, Sen. Grassley wrote to the acting ATF director, Kenneth Melson, asking whether the gun-walking allegations were true. Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ronald Weich, who relied on ATF for his information, said the reports were false.”

Grassley soon teamed with Issa, the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who had the subpoena power that Grassley lacked.

On March 31, 2011, Issa subpoenaed the Fast and Furious documents. Two and a half months later, Issa and Grassley released a scathing report calling the operation “ill-conceived” and “abhorrent.” On June 15, Issa held a hearing, bringing together Weich, whistle-blowers and relatives of Terry, the slain Border Patrol agent.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Issa that he did not learn about Fast and Furious until this spring. President Obama said that Holder told him he would not have allowed guns to go into Mexico.

Shortly after Issa’s hearing, Melson, a career prosecutor for more than 30 years, read in the newspaper that he might be fired.

On July 1, a Friday, Grassley’s chief investigator sent Melson an email, alerting him to concerns of retaliation against the Group 7 agents. He gave Melson his cellphone number and told him to call anytime.

On Monday, July 4, an extraordinary meeting took place: Melson, the embattled head of a federal agency, went in secret to Capitol Hill to talk to the political enemies of his bosses in the administration.

Melson testified behind closed doors to about 10 congressional staffers sitting around a long witness table in the Rayburn Building. Melson said mistakes had been made by the ATF. He said guns should have been interdicted in certain instances. He was frustrated that Justice had not let him speak to Congress months earlier. And he said Justice officials seemed to be more concerned about protecting the political appointees at the top of the department.

After Melson’s testimony, Issa and Grassley wrote a five-page letter embracing the ATF director and warning Holder not to fire or retaliate against him.

“I do have serious concerns that the attorney general should have known a lot more than he says he knew,” said Issa, who held another Fast and Furious hearing Tuesday.

Some ATF officials still insist that Fast and Furious is a success, saying the case will soon lead to the indictment of as many as two dozen high-level traffickers. They fear the controversy could rob the agency of the will to pursue the biggest gun-trafficking cases.

“I am concerned that the lasting effect of this premature and stilted inquiry will be that the citizens of this country ultimately will be less safe as ATF agents will be less inclined to work the hard cases necessary to cut off the head of the snake,” said Paul Pelletier, a former Justice official and the attorney for Newell.

Altogether, the straw purchasers bought 2,020 firearms during Fast and Furious, according to law-enforcement officials. Of those guns, 227 were recovered in Mexico; 363 have been recovered in the U.S.

An additional 1,430 remain on the streets.