Lawmakers' report says ATF program 'likely' contributed to agent's death

Two leading Republicans released a report Tuesday night documenting their investigations into a highly controversial federal gun-tracking program.

The report, released by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), reached no conclusions about who in the Justice Department authorized the “Fast and Furious” operation.

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The reactions of ATF agents to the operation and several attempts to put a halt to it are chronicled in the 51-page report, but it contains very little new information which had not previously been gathered and released to the public by Issa and Grassley through documents – most of which were obtained from whistleblowers within the agency.

The report, which comes 12 hours before a House hearing on the operation, focuses on a series of interviews conducted with federal officials, which indicate that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) knowingly aided in the sale of firearms to suspected or known straw purchasers for Mexican drug cartels.

“Instead of trying to interdict the weapons, ATF purposely avoided contact with known straw purchasers or curtailed surveillance, allowing guns to fall into the hands of criminals and bandits on both sides of the border,” the report states.

The ATF’s attempt to monitor the sale of the guns, catalog their serial numbers, and track them back to members of Mexican drug cartels is “likely” to have contributed to the killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in a shootout last December in Arizona, according to the report.

“The death of Border Agent Brian Terry was likely a preventable tragedy,” states the report. Two of the weapons found at the scene of Terry’s killing were traced back to a purchase that the ATF had monitored earlier that year, according to ATF documents.

"Unfortunately, ATF never achieved the laudable goal of dismantling a drug cartel. In fact, ATF never even got close,” the report states.

For months Issa and Grassley have been interviewing dozens of field agents, federal officials, and other people familiar with the “Fast and Furious” operation, after a whistleblower from within ATF informed Grassley of the program late last year.

The lawmakers have had difficulty obtaining the documents that they’ve requested about the operation from the Justice Department, and have mainly had to rely on the interviews and documents from whistleblowers to construct an informed scope of the operation.

DOJ officials say that the congressional inquiry into the matter conflicts with the agency’s prosecutions of 20 alleged straw purchasers tracked in the operation, and that a congressional investigation should wait until those trials are completed.

Both President Obama and Attorney General have said that the program was a mistake and an Inspector General investigation has been launched to probe who gave the ultimate go-ahead for it.

On Wednesday, Issa’s committee will hear from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, several ATF agents, and members of Terry’s family.

The report states that it is “the first in a series regarding Operation Fast and Furious” and that “possible future reports and hearings will likely focus on the actions of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona, the decisions faced by gun shop owners as a result of ATF’s actions, and the remarkably ill-fated decisions made by Justice Department officials in Washington, especially within the Criminal Division and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General.”