June 21st, 2012
09:03 PM ET

Fast and Furious investigation started with agent's death

[Updated on September 19, 2012] Wednesday's Justice Department inspector general report criticizing 14 ATF and Justice Department employees relates to a months-long investigation into a controversial gun sting that allowed hundreds of weapons to reach violent Mexican drug cartels.

The controversial Operation Fast and Furious, which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began in 2009, came to the public's attention after guns linked to the program were found at the site where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed.

Brian A. Terry was fatally shot in the Arizona desert, just north of the Mexico border, on December 14, 2010, after he confronted a group of bandits believed to be preying on illegal immigrants. Nearly three months later, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, announced that two weapons found near the scene were traced to an ATF gun-running operation, later identified as Fast and Furious.

Fast and Furious was intended to build cases against Mexican drug cartels and the smuggling networks supplying them by allowing illegally purchased firearms to go from the United States into Mexico. In the operation, "straw buyers" - people who buy the weapons for others who might not legally be allowed to buy them - were allowed to purchase in Arizona illegally large numbers of weapons, some of which ended up in the hands of cartels in Mexico.

The idea was that once the weapons in Mexico were traced to the straw purchasers, the smuggling network could be brought down. But the ATF lost track of more than 1,000 firearms, and some guns weren't recovered until they turned up at crime scenes, both in Mexico and, as the Terry case illustrated, the United States.

Once the operation was in the public spotlight, Mexican officials and critics in the United States called the operation a failure, saying it exacerbated the longstanding problem of U.S. weapons getting into the hands of Mexican cartels.

Criticism was heaped on the ATF and its parent agency, the Department of Justice. Congressional committees began investigating last year, and Democrats and Republicans have been at odds over who knew what about the operation, and when.

The House Oversight Committee has sought documents that would show why the Justice Department decided to withdraw as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to Congress that said top officials had only recently learned about Fast and Furious.

The Justice Department has turned over thousands of documents during the investigation. However, Attorney General Eric Holder refused to turn over materials containing internal deliberations. In June, the Republican-led House voted to hold the attorney general in contempt.

Here is a timeline of some of the events in the Fast and Furious investigation:

December 14, 2010: Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry is killed in the Arizona desert. Two guns found at the site are later linked to the ATF Fast and Furious program.

January 2011: Congress begins asking questions about the ATF program.

February 4, 2011: Responding to an inquiry from Sen. Charles Grassley, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich writes that top officials had only recently learned about the ATF gun-running program, but that nothing improper was done in the operation. Weich also asserts that any allegation that the ATF knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico is false. "ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico," Weich wrote.

March 3, 2011: An ATF whistleblower tells  "CBS Evening News" that the ATF intentionally allowed guns to go into Mexico. Just minutes before the broadcast, ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson issues a statement saying the agency is forming a panel to "review the bureau's current firearms trafficking strategies employed by field division managers and special agents."

March 4, 2011: CNN reports that Grassley wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that the ATF was "stonewalling" his investigation into the matter. CNN also reports that, according to Grassley, ATF agents told his staff "the agency allowed the sale of assault rifles to known and suspected straw purchasers for an illegal trafficking ring near the southwest border."

May 2011: Holder tells the House Judiciary Committee that he "probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks."

June 15, 2011: Rep. Darrell Issa alleges Weich's claim that the ATF never knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw purchasers, who then transported them into Mexico, is deceiving. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and other congressmen allege that although it is technically true that straw purchasers didn't cross any weapons into Mexico, they did transfer them to third parties who did.

Also, ATF whistle-blowers testify before Issa's committee. Peter Forcelli, a supervisor at the ATF Phoenix field office, says Fast and Furious was "a colossal failure of leadership." An agent, Lee Casa, tells the committee that ATF supervisors brushed off several agents' concerns over letting guns go. Another agent, John Dodson, tells lawmakers: "I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest."

August 30, 2011: Melson, the ATF's acting director, is reassigned to a position in the Justice Department. Also, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, resigns. Burke's office had given legal guidance to the ATF relating to Fast and Furious.

September 7, 2011: Holder says in a news conference that Fast and Furious "was clearly a flawed enforcement effort," and adds that investigations will find involvement did not reach "the upper levels" of the Justice Department.

October 12, 2011: Congressional investigators issue a subpoena for communications from several top Justice Department officials, including Holder, relating to Fast and Furious. Meanwhile, Republicans say that previously released documents show that Holder knew about Fast and Furious much earlier than he indicated to the House Judiciary Committee in May. Holder and his aides deny the allegation.

November 1, 2011: Lanny Breuer, an assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, tells a Senate judiciary subcommittee that he first learned of the tactic of allowing illegally purchased guns to leave shops in April 2010. That tactic, he said, was executed during a 2006-2007 ATF program, called Operation Wide Receiver, which happened during the George W. Bush administration.

Breuer says he should have warned Holder and other Justice officials about the 2006-2007 tactics, but failed to do so. He said he also failed to recognize that the same tactics used in 2006-2007 were being used again in Fast and Furious.

November 8, 2011: Holder tells the Senate Judiciary Committee that the tactic allowing illegal guns to be smuggled into Mexico "should never have happened, and it must never happen again."

December 2, 2011: The Justice Department withdraws its February 4 letter to Grassley, saying the letter contains inaccuracies.

Also, ahead of a December 8 House Judiciary Committee hearing at which Holder is to testify, 1,400 pages demanded by investigators are released. The documents show, among other things, that Justice officials struggled for days over how to write the February letter to Grassley.

December 7, 2011: Grassley calls on Breuer to resign, saying he misled Congress by saying he didn't know in February that the assertions in the February 4 letter were wrong. Grassley says documents show that Breuer should have been aware that the letter contained false assertions, due to his knowledge of the 2006-2007 Operation Wide Receiver.

December 8, 2011: Holder tells the House Judiciary Committee that he won't resign over the Fast and Furious controversy, and that he doesn't think any of his top aides should step down. He says the operation relied on "unacceptable tactics" and was "inexcusable," but he says that Justice Department officials have cooperated with investigators, and that any previous misleading information was not part of an intentional deception.

January 31, 2012: Democrats on the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee issue a report saying the panel has found no evidence showing that top Justice officials "conceived or directed" Fast and Furious. The report from the Democrats, who are a minority on the Republican-led panel, places blame for the program on federal agents and prosecutors in Arizona.

February 1, 2012: Terry's parents, Josephine and Kent Terry Sr., file a $25 million wrongful death claim in an Arizona court against the federal government.

February 2, 2012: Holder tells the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that firings of Justice officials who oversaw Fast and Furious are likely to come in the next six months.

Meanwhile, Issa threatens to begin a contempt proceeding against Holder unless he releases more documents.

May 18, 2012: Issa and other House GOP lawmakers send Holder demanding that he release the full amount of materials that Issa's committee asked for previously.  Although the letter acknowledges that there's been some cooperation on the investigation, it emphasizes that House Republicans still want answers in two key areas - who in top positions knew about the operation before the murder of a federal border agent exposed its existence, and did anyone on Holder's team misinform Congress when they responded in part to the Oversight committee's subpoena.

June 19, 2012: A showdown meeting between Holder and Issa fails to resolve their dispute over documents. Issa says that unless at least some of the documents are handed over before the committee meets June 20, it would vote on a measure that would send a contempt vote to the full House.

June 20, 2012: President Barack Obama asserts executive privilege over some of the documents sought by Issa's panel. The White House move means the Department of Justice can withhold some of the documents.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee votes 23-17 (with all of the panel's Republicans voting yes, and all of the panel's Democrats voting no) to recommend that the full House vote on whether to cite Holder for contempt of Congress. The vote by the full House could happen on the week of June 25.

June 28, 2012: The House votes to hold Holder in contempt of Congress, but he does not face criminal prosecution. House Republicans are joined by 17 Democrats in citing Holder, while dozens of Democrats walk out in protest.

The House also cites Holder for civil contempt to give it the option of filing a lawsuit compelling Holder to turn over documents sought by Oversight Committee investigators.  Issa concedes that investigators lack any evidence that Holder knew of the failed weapons-tracking tactics of Fast and Furious.

July 9, 2012: Federal authorities unseal an indictment charging five men in Terry's death.

The indictment charges Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga, Ivan Soto-Barraza, Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes and Lionel Portillo-Meza with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, attempted interference with commerce by robbery, carrying and using a firearm during a crime of violence, assault on a federal officer and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. A sixth defendant, Rito Osorio-Arellanes, is charged solely with conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery.

Up to $1 million is offered for information leading to the arrest of four men still at large.

September 19, 2012: The U.S. Justice Department's inspector general issues a report finding 14 ATF and DoJ employees responsible for management failures in the Fast and Furious operation. The report refers the 14 for possible disciplinary action, but did not recommend criminal sanctions.

The report also finds that Holder was not informed of the operation until 2011, after Terry's December 2010 death.

Also, Holder announces that Melson, the acting ATF director, has retired, and that former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein has resigned.

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Filed under: Politics
soundoff (248 Responses)
  1. Someone

    As I said earlier – this whole thing feels a lot like Iran/Contra, except the parties are reversed. It was a stupid idea, yes – but I get the feeling that it ios being blown into a political circus.

    June 22, 2012 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Nate

      I'm not being argumentative but a federal agent is dead, a family grieves their son, and the gun that did it was sold to the bad guys by our own ATF after getting the "go ahead" nod from Eric Holder. Heads need to roll for this if only to prove that our government can still police itself. Otherwise, Dem or GOP take on characteristics of rouge regimes, operating with impunity, outside the law.

      June 22, 2012 at 3:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Alex Paxton

      One suspects that F & F relates somehow to a campaign contribution. Follow the money. Lots of guns. Lots of money. Solyndra, MoveOn.org, Hollywood. Fast & Furious stinks to high heaven. Now we got an executive privilege invoked at the 11th hour? Sumpms way-rotten in Denmark!

      June 22, 2012 at 5:06 am | Report abuse |
  2. Greg Short

    If they can go after Roger Clemens for "misleading" a congressional committee about his use of steroids in baseball at a time that it was not against the rules to do so, Holder should definitely be held in contempt. You watch though. Nothing will probably ever happen. The government is worried more about sports than our national security.

    June 22, 2012 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Pete

      @G Short ,what about congressional committee hearings years ago against Bushs firing 9 attorneys.AG Gonzales later resigned and the two witnesses in guestion never had their day did they ,with republicans walking out trying to stop the bleeding.Or Bushs hanging a CIA opertive out to dry over her husbands public story made to the NY TIMES,remember Valerie Plame Wilson,wife of then ambassador Joseph Wilson,Bush and Cheney,Rove,they all had a hand in that one but nobody ever had their day either.But you republicans better be nice because indictments from over 147 countries have been shown to Bush,Cheney,Rice and others for human rights violations .The Hague in the Netherlands are patiently waiting to crucify all of them and its our Pres.Obama who as you may not know has been protecting them,they can't leave the states.INTERPOL has been watching and is waiting for them to screwup so to pick them up.Republicans,even Gingrich have been getting away with crap,so has tricky Dick,talking of assasinating Ted Kennedy if he got too close to running against him for president,Nixon knew if Kennedy ran,he'd be toast,that's not conspiracy,that's known fact,Nixon was a fascist and republicans applauded it,some facts never die,they just get dirtier with age!!!

      June 22, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
  3. ct

    one agent died compared to the thousands of soldiers that lost their lives due to bushs lies of mass destruction, causing the debt to spiral out of control..

    thats a fact..

    June 22, 2012 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Hutch

      You believe out of 1600 guns only one agent was killed by them? GWB has nothing to do with this.

      June 22, 2012 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • mickey1313

      @hutch, f&f was a follow up op to BUSHS GUNRUNNER, he has everything to do with it.

      June 22, 2012 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  4. dainks

    At 00:09 – "ATF was tracking the guns..."

    ATF was NOT tracking the guns, which one of the primary problems with Fast and Furious.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
  5. Hutch

    "Lanny Breuer, an assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, tells a Senate judiciary subcommittee that he first learned of the tactic of allowing illegally purchased guns to leave shops in April 2010. That tactic, he said, was executed during a 2006-2007 ATF program, called Operation Wide Receiver, which happened during the George W. Bush administration."

    Pretty selective reporting. Actually Lanny Breuer did identify Operation Wide Receiver as another gun running tactic as reported but with one HUGE difference as he explained. Operation Wide Receiver allowed the illegal purchase of weapons, and the weapons were closely followed and arrest were made while STILL in possession of the weapins at exchanges OR before they crossed the border. At NO TIME were the weapons allowed to disappear as Fast a Furious was actually based upon.

    To this day I cannot fathom what the true purpose of this was. There is no way you could track them once you simply allowed them to leave monitoring. No one Mexico was screaming about guns pouring across the border. All the while back home members of Congress were complaining about this weapons and wanting to ban them because they were so easily taken into Mexico. Come to find out, not only did the US government allow it..... they arranged it.

    Pathetic. All of the innocent blood spilled by those weapons rest squarely one the hands of those who allowed it... and no level of "executive privilege" the be able to block anyone and everyone who allowed it to happen.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Hutch

      My apologies for the horrendous grammatical errors. To busy typing and alas, no edit feature.

      June 22, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  6. MIke

    Actually Fast and Furious seems more like a plan to prove US firearms are in Mexico. How in the heck do you let stolen goods travel over a national border. The Mexican authorities nor apparently US agents in Mexico never even knew about the plan...of course they were going to lose track of the firearms. The plan seems more like a justification to call for more gun control on the US side. I voted for O but not again. This year I am voting for anyone who does not take corporate cash or Mickey Mouse.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • TomNPitt

      I guess you're voting for Mickey Mouse. Everyone of them are taking Corporate money. In this instance I would be willing to bet the NRA was deeply involved in the promotion of this program. Especially since both parties did the same thing. I know, you say the distribution was closely monitored when Bush did it. But really – can you say that about anything being done in Mexico?? What about all these headless people found that can't be identified.

      June 22, 2012 at 5:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      and that's exactly what it was

      June 22, 2012 at 6:14 am | Report abuse |
  7. the truth

    Iam amazed that people are fighting on this comment section on what president did what. The truth is that programs like this are how the feds catch criminals, by making them. Drugs and arms have been let through the borders and other countries for years, infact starting in the 80's. Thats because it has to do with money and political partys love money and dont care where it comes from. Its no surprise that we aid mexico and afganistan which are two countries filled with corruped governments runned by drug money. The U.S. supply them with guns and training and they spill out cash.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Hutch

      @the truth

      While I agree government law enforcement has a rich history of inciting illicit behavior, to the point of handing them the directions or training, I have a hard time remembering of a know instance where they simply started it, sat back without monitoring it, and waited to see where it turned up.

      Even in drug running or money laundering, they are following the assets. In this particular case, they did the equivalent of throwing a box of pistols out at public park and then went back to their offices and waited for the homicide reports to come across their desk so they could see how far the weapons traveled. Absolutely mind blowing.

      June 22, 2012 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. Metron

    It should be discussed that Obama intended to push for anti-gun laws here in the US as a result of those guns found to have crossed the border. He would say "see what happens when gun sales take place", but, those "gun sales" were not sales at all – they were hand outs from the ATF directly to the drug cartels. Mark my words – the Obama admin approved handing the weapons directly to the cartels. THAT is what Obama is trying to hide.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
  9. NoLongetDem2

    Go to the search feature on CBS news to find out what has really been happening. They have been reporting on Fast and Furious for about a year and a half. Sharryl Attkinsson is an amazing investigative reporter. The NYT and NBC have tried to ignore this. CNN took months to start their sloppy reporting on Fast and Furious.

    June 22, 2012 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
    • oduck2112

      Sharryl Attkinsson was the only liberal mainstream media reporter to cover the fast and furious story, but she did not break the story. That credit belongs to Mike Vanderboegh and others who were reporting on this story before Sharryl began her reporting.

      June 22, 2012 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
  10. cnntwistruth

    This investigation has been going on for the last 18 months and this is the first substantial article published by this so called news organization.

    The mainstream media have lost millions of viewers and readers precisely because of this sort of never ending hypocrisy. Obama, whose history is highly suspect, and whose actions have verged from merely incompetent to destructive and even criminal, has been given a pass of such staggering proportions it begs credulity.

    June 22, 2012 at 2:24 am | Report abuse |
  11. Anti-Democrat all the way baby!

    Of course, any article on CNN to do with Obama or the Demoncrats is posted on a cowardly CNN blog where people can't have a forum.

    June 22, 2012 at 2:50 am | Report abuse |
  12. Cathy

    Really this article should be in the opinion section as it is too fill of factual errors to be considered news. The gun walking program began in 2005, under Bush. A report completed in 2007 by then Attorney General Mukasey states that "of particular importance, ATF has recently worked jointly with Mexico on the first-ever attempt to have a controlled delivery of weapons being smuggled into Mexico by a major arms trafficker." It adds: "While the first attempts at this controlled delivery have not been successful, the investigation is ongoing, and ATF would like to expand the possibility of such joint investigations and controlled deliveries – since only then will it be possible to investigate an entire smuggling network, rather than arresting simply a single smuggler." Really CNN, I expect better of you.

    June 22, 2012 at 2:51 am | Report abuse |
  13. Tim Boyer

    President Obama's overreach in the Fast and Furious probe is consistent with his amnesty-by-fiat ruling on the suspension of enforcing current immigration laws (see link below). This type of dictatorial behavior should worry people of all political stripes.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-obamas-amnesty-by-fiat–naked-lawlessness/2012/06/21/gJQAa5PltV_story.html

    June 22, 2012 at 3:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. Stomp

    Why would the president hinder the investigation unless he, or some of his people had something to lose.

    June 22, 2012 at 3:25 am | Report abuse |
  15. John

    I voted for Obama, a fact that I regret wholeheartedly. If the President isn't involved why invoke executive priviledge? If there is nothing to hide why invoke executive priviledge? I thought said under his administration that we the people would have transparency? Obama there is really nothing to hide, its now about principle. Is it not principlable to keep your word? My fellows from the left can spin this al they want, but it is what it "is". I frankly smell a rat.

    June 22, 2012 at 4:13 am | Report abuse |
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