hide captionA U.S. Border Patrol agent walks past photos of slain fellow agent Brian Terry, a Marine Corps veteran, during a memorial service on Jan. 21, 2011, in Tucson. Terry was killed during a Dec. 14 shootout near the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands of Border Patrol agents and law enforcement officers from across Arizona turned out for the memorial.
John Moore/Getty Images
The murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Mexico last year has touched off a scandal that's now reverberating in Washington.
Members of Congress say that weapons found at the scene of Brian Terry's death have been traced to a federal program that allegedly allowed hundreds of guns to go from the U.S. across the border.
Investigators at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives called it Operation Fast and Furious, just like the blockbuster movie. Agents wanted to follow the flow of guns from the U.S. into the hands of deadly Mexican drug cartels. But the only thing that's coming fast and furious now are hostile questions from Congress.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversees the ATF, tried to explain what he knew about the episode at two hearings on Capitol Hill this week.
"You have to understand the way in which the department operates," Holder said. "Although there are [a lot of] operations, this one ... has gotten a great deal of publicity."
But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) interrupted. "There are dead Americans as a result of this failed and reckless program, so I would say that it hasn't gotten enough attention," he said.
Issa, who leads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is trying to uncover how the gun-running investigation went off the rails and whether top Justice Department leaders approved it in advance.
Following The Trail
To find out more, congressional investigators have traveled to Arizona, where people allegedly working with drug gangs illegally purchased more than 1,000 guns. Many of those guns were later found at crime scenes on both sides of the border.
Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has been on the trail, too.
"At best, the ATF was careless in authorizing the sale of thousands of guns to straw purchasers," Grassley said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. "At worst, our own government knowingly participated in arming criminals, drug cartels and those who later killed federal agents."
That includes Terry, the U.S. Border Patrol agent who died in a shootout in Mexico last December. Two assault weapons were found nearby. Authorities traced those weapons to illegal gun purchases at a dealership in Arizona.
Issa and Grassley said the transactions were carried out while ATF investigators watched.
No one has been charged in Terry's death — the investigation continues. But the Justice Department's internal watchdog is investigating, too. That probe is focused on the department's own people, and whether they violated their mission to prevent the flow of guns.
For his part, Holder said that he hadn't been aware of the operation. He told lawmakers it's on his radar screen now.
"What I have told people at the Department of Justice is that under no circumstances, in any case, in any investigation that we bring, should guns be allowed to be distributed in an uncontrolled manner," he said.
Congressional Republicans say more than a dozen whistleblowers have come forward to express their concerns about the danger of Operation Fast and Furious. That includes ATF agents, their supervisors, and even an Arizona gun dealer.
The unnamed dealer sent e-mails to agents in Arizona last year, six months before Terry's death, warning them that he had a bad feeling. In the messages, the dealer said he was worried the guns would make their way to Mexico and be used by "bad guys."
Blood On Their Hands?
Republicans in Congress appear to be eager to demonstrate a link between the controversial gun trafficking operation and the Justice Department's leadership.
In a letter to Issa and Grassley, department officials say the operation was approved by the top federal prosecutor in Phoenix and ATF officials there.
Other Justice Department documents released as part of the congressional investigation suggested that investigators needed more evidence to build a case against higher-ups like middlemen and drug cartel leaders.
An application to use a wiretap against one suspect in the investigation was approved by Justice Department lawyers in Washington, but spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler says that process was simply "a narrow assessment of whether a legal basis exists to support a surveillance request that ultimately goes before a judge for a decision ... not approval of the underlying investigations or operations."
In an exchange with Issa, Holder bristled at the suggestion that those investigators have blood on their hands.
"The notion that somehow or other this Justice Department is responsible for those deaths that you mentioned — that assertion is offensive," Holder said. "And I want to tell you that ..."
Once again, Issa interjected: "But what if it's accurate, Mr. Attorney General?"
Republican lawmakers say they think the Justice Department is holding back documents and stonewalling their attempts to find out more about Operation Fast and Furious.
But department leaders say they can't turn over all their materials because of the ongoing criminal investigation.