Committee tracks gun-tracking operation

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) kept the pressure on federal law enforcement agents Tuesday to discover who is responsible for a botched gun-tracking operation that might have contributed to the death of at least one federal agent. 

A half-dozen former and current agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — chaired by Issa — to testify about operation Fast and Furious, which authorized gun dealers in the Southwest to sell large numbers of high-powered weapons to known and suspected straw purchasers for Mexican drug cartels. 

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William Newell, the former special agent in charge of the ATF’s Phoenix field division, said mistakes definitely were made in carrying out the operation, which was developed primarily within the ranks of the Arizona-based office. 

“It’s not one person who did that,” Newell said, referring to questions by Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) about who came up with the idea for Fast and Furious.

“It was a group of individuals who looked at the set of facts in this case and determined that this was the best strategy to follow and take up … It’s several individuals. It was the group supervisor, assistant special agent in charge, myself and individuals in headquarters.”

William McMahon, the head of ATF’s Western Region and the highest-ranking ATF official to testify before the committee, apologized for the mistakes he made, including signing off on paperwork for the operation’s activities without carefully reviewing what he was signing. 

Both Newell and McMahon, however, argued that it was never part of the plan to let the guns “walk” across the border into Mexico.  

“It was not the purpose of the investigation to permit the transportation of firearms into Mexico,” Newell said. “To the best of my knowledge, none of the suspects in this case was ever witnessed by our agents crossing the border with firearms.”

Lawmakers were incensed by the comments, with Issa calling Newell “a paid non-answerer” at one point. Members on the panel said surely ATF officials must have known that without close supervision, the guns would head to Mexico. 

Fast and Furious was designed to track the paths of guns bought in the U.S. as they were trafficked to the U.S.-Mexico border. Officials hoped that by watching a vast number of the guns move, they would have a clearer picture of the routes and be able to make a stronger case when they attempted to dismantle the gun-trafficking rings. 

But the federal officials in charge of the operation did not authorize enough surveillance of the weapons and offered no reliable method of tracing them other than if they were later recovered at a crime scene, according to ATF testimony before the committee Tuesday and last month.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyDems to challenge Kavanaugh for White House records 2020 hopefuls skeptical of criminal justice deal with Trump Five things to know about Bruce Ohr, the DOJ official under fire from Trump MORE (R-Iowa) and Issa have pursued the issue for seven months, ever since a whistleblower came to Grassley following the killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Two of the guns found at the scene of Terry’s killing were later traced to sales made under Fast and Furious’s authorization.

According to ATF agents at Tuesday’s hearing, about 590 of the more than 1,000 guns sold under Fast and Furious have been recovered. And about 122 of the recovered guns have been linked to crime scenes, according to a new report issued by Grassley and Issa ahead of the hearing. 

The lawmakers want to find out who gave the ultimate authorization for the operation. Both President Obama and Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderTrump, Obamas and Clintons among leaders mourning Aretha Franklin With bash-Trump day, press acts like opposition party Sanders to appear next week on Colbert's 'Late Show' MORE have decried the program. Holder called for the inspector general to investigate the issue, and Obama has declined to comment on the matter until that probe is complete.

Earlier this month, ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson told the committee in a closed-door interview that neither he nor Acting Deputy Director Billy Hoover knew about the operation ahead of its public revelation earlier this year, according to a partial transcript of the meeting provided to The Hill by committee Democrats.

Committee members also heard for the first time that Newell had spoken with a member of the White House about the operation about one year ago.

Newell said he was friend of Kevin O’Reilly, the National Security Council’s director of North American affairs and had spoken with him about Fast and Furious and its parent Gunrunner program in “the summer or early fall of 2010,” according to Newell.

“He was asking for information to brief his boss, I believe, for preparation for a trip to Mexico in our efforts in our area along what we were doing to combat firearms trafficking and other issues,” said Newell.

This story was posted at 5:14 p.m. and updated at 8:33 p.m.