In congressional hearings Wednesday, Rep. Darrell Issa ripped into high-level Justice Department officials, saying that they were fully aware of the deadly sale of guns to Mexican drug cartels, and declared that the entire operation “looks an awful lot like Iran Contra.”
The California Republican maintains that both the Justice Department and its agency of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) ignored repeated warnings from federal agents, who complained that the ATF’s program of allowing thousands of AK-47s and 50-caliber sniper rifles to be sold to Mexican drug lords would result in the murder of innocent people.
And it did.
The goal of the the controversial “Project Gunrunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious” programs was to use
serial numbers on weapons sold to “straw purchasers,” who planned to resell the guns to the drug cartels, to trace the weapons after Mexican police apprehended them later at crime scenes.
The objective was to link the gun smuggling to a Mexican cartel. But members of Issa’s committee object that there was never any practical way to punish the cartels, once a clear pattern of distribution south of the border was established.
Moreover, police say weapons are likely to be used in multiple crimes and assaults before they are finally confiscated at a crime scene. The Mexican government was not informed of the scheme, and there is no way of knowing how many assaults, murders, and kidnappings took place with the thousands of weapons allowed to go south of the border.
The ordinary procedure before the controversial program, which began in the fall of 2009, was always to arrest someone carrying an illegal weapon, or monitor the weapon until an arrest could be made. The concern was that letting a firearm get out of sight could have fatal consequences, and ATF agent and whistleblower John Dodson testified the rule was “nobody went home” until all weapons had been safely accounted for.
When that policy began to change, agents protested that it was only a matter of time until the new policy cost an agent or an innocent civilian his life. But those concerns apparently were ignored.
Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, issued a 51-page report
Tuesday that detailed not only the desperate attempts of several ATF agents to alert superiors to the danger of letting guns “walk” back into Mexico but also the initial denials and stonewalling by high-level DOJ and ATF officials.
Grassley has called for an independent investigation. “There may as well be a fox guarding the chicken house," he says. “It tells me, when they are stonewalling, that people too high up knew about it and they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions.”
“Nothing changes in bureaucracies if heads don’t roll," Grassley continued. "Secondly, these whistleblowers ought to be honored as patriotic people. They prophesied that somebody would get killed and somebody did get killed."
Issa’s committee convened hearings on the matter Wednesday. It heard testimony from ATF agents who were outraged their warnings that Project Gunrunner would have fatal consequences were ignored. The committee also heard testimony from Josephine Terry, the mother of slain Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was slain in a gun battle with suspected drug-cartel operatives in December 2010.
Two of the weapons recovered at the scene of the program were traced back to the Project Gunrunner program — meaning at one point federal law officers knowingly allowed those weapons to fall into the hands of the cartels that have claimed over 34,000 Mexican lives in the past four and a half years. Last year alone, 111 U.S. citizens were killed in Mexico.
Asked how she reacted when she learned that federal officers had allowed the guns used against her son to fall into the hands of drug-cartel operatives, she said she was “flabbergasted.”
“At first I didn’t believe it,” she said.
The Issa-Grassley report includes a February 2011 letter to Grassley from the DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs, which stated: “the allegation described in your January 27 letter – that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assult weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico – is false.”
Grassley vowed to continue asking the hard questions.
“People know that I don’t give up," he said.
The Daily Caller reports that Issa told radio host Rick Amato that several government agencies have been dragging their feet in response to his committee’s subpoenas on information about the program.
The government released several hundred pages of information on the eve of the hearing, and committee staff have reportedly been poring over the late-arriving documents this week.
“This looks an awful lot like Iran-Contra,” Issa said. “When a government agency makes a mistake they stall, delay and cover up. That’s what’s happening here.”
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