Gun tracking plan backfires

Fast and Furious a thorn for Obama administration

PHOENIX - Seven months later, Fast and Furious has fast become a political thorn for the Obama administration. Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General to look into what happened, and President Barack Obama has vowed to take "appropriate actions."

Meanwhile, a parade of ATF agents has come forward, offering astonishing testimony in condemnation of a probe they call embarrassing, shameful, dumbfounding. They include John Dodson, Olindo Casa and Larry Alt, but also another Phoenix-based supervisor, an ATF intelligence specialist and three Mexico-based agents.

In testimony Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Darren Gil, the former ATF attache to Mexico, called it "inconceivable" that ATF agents would allow firearms to not only disappear but cross into Mexico "knowing that they are ultimately destined for the hands of the worst of the worst criminals."

In his own interview with congressional investigators, ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson said there were "some mistakes made" during Fast and Furious and that he believes interdiction could have occurred but didn't. William McMahon, who heads ATF field operations in the West, and Newell, the former top man in Phoenix, have also acknowledged mistakes.

Newell told the House committee Tuesday that it was never the purpose of Fast and Furious to permit the movement of firearms into Mexico. He nevertheless acknowledged that his office knew as early as November 2009 that guns being purchased by Fast and Furious suspects were, indeed, being recovered there.

When asked why the operation wasn't aborted, Newell stressed the difficulty in proving such cases and said prosecutors wanted more evidence. He also pointed to the larger mission.

"These Mexican drug cartels are going to get their firearms ... so we have to do everything we can in terms of taking out the infrastructure. Straw purchasers are the lowest rung on the ladder," he said, adding that focusing just on them would not have had "a lasting impact."

The Justice Department has since issued new guidance prohibiting operations "which include guns crossing the border" and calling for immediate action if there is knowledge guns are about to enter Mexico. Also, gun shops in Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona are now required to alert the ATF to purchases of two or more high-powered rifles in a five-day span to help agents spot suspicious buying patterns.

In January, Avila and 19 other members of the alleged Fast and Furious network were indicted on charges including conspiracy, dealing in firearms without a license and making false statements in the acquisition of guns. Trial is currently set for February, though officials say the investigation continues and other suspects may be charged.

As for the guns, an ATF intelligence analyst reports that Fast and Furious associates purchased, in all, more than 2,000 firearms - and that 1,430 have yet to be recovered.

The Terry family is still waiting to learn more about how the two guns found at Border Patrol agent Brian Terry's slaying made their way there. One suspect has been charged with second-degree murder in the shootout.

Sources have told The Associated Press that the fatal bullet did not conclusively match either of the recovered Fast and Furious guns, according to ballistics tests. Patrick McGroder, an Arizona attorney hired by the Terry family to weigh possible legal action, said those tests are "less than equivocal." He plans an independent test.

The agent's mother, Josephine Terry, said: "Justice, to us, is not beating around the bush. If you made a mistake ... say you did. Just say you did."

In Phoenix, several of those who helped oversee Fast and Furious have since been reassigned out of state, including Newell and Voth, the Group VII supervisor. Voth did not respond to phone messages and emails from the AP. ATF spokesman Scot Thomasson said he and Newell could not comment due to the pending criminal cases and ongoing internal and congressional inquiries.

Dodson remains in Phoenix, still searching for answers to lingering questions, including who, ultimately, was responsible for Fast and Furious.

Perhaps the most important question that has no clear answer: Where are the rest of the guns?