ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now to a law enforcement operation that's creating a scandal in Washington. It's called Fast and Furious, and it was an effort to crack down on gun trafficking. But the U.S. lost track of its own guns, which then got into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Now, the Justice Department and Republicans in Congress are trading accusations over who approved the operation.

As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, what's getting lost in all the politics is the effort to take down drug and gun traffickers.

CARRIE JOHNSON: The Washington scandal machine ratcheted into high gear this week, even Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" got into the act, raising questions about a law enforcement operation gone bad.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show")

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): So our plan to prevent American guns from being used in Mexican gang violence is to provide Mexican gangs American guns...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: ...to use, according to our plan, for violence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: The operation, called Fast and Furious, was a response to criticism from Justice Department watchdogs. They said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had been aiming too low in its investigations of gun trafficking along the southwest border.

Federal agents were busting lots of people, straw buyers, for purchasing guns in the U.S. under false pretenses. But investigators stopped well short of bigger targets.

Mr. PAUL PELLETIER (Former Prosecutor): In all these cases, when you're talking about straw buyers, you're talking about people who are very fungible.

JOHNSON: Paul Pelletier was a prosecutor for 27 years, and he says the old way of doing business wasn't working.

Mr. PELLETIER: You can arrest and charge and convict a hundred straw buyers and you're not going to have an impact on the organization. You're not going to help public safety.

JOHNSON: That's where Fast and Furious comes in. The big law enforcement operation was supposed to watch the flow of guns from small fish in the U.S. to big fish in Mexico, using bold strategies such as wiretaps and real-time video surveillance of gun shops in Arizona.

Then late last year, two weapons traced to a man under investigation for straw purchases were found where a U.S. border agent died in a gunfight, and things went south from there.

Republicans in Congress pounced on the issue of who knew what, when. Here's California lawmaker Darrell Issa, focused on ATF leader Ken Melson.

Representative DARRELL ISSA (R-CA, Chairman, Oversight and Government Reform Committee): Acting Director Melson was able to sit at his desk in Washington, and himself watch a live feed of straw buyers entering the gun stores and purchasing dozens of AK-47 variants.

JOHNSON: Melson, a career prosecutor has been facing calls to resign, but so far he's not budging.

And former ATF agent Mike Bouchard says that sounds right to him for now.

Mr. MIKE BOUCHARD: It's troubling that people are making decisions about investigative tactics when all the facts aren't out there. If people don't agree with how it was handled after all the facts are on the table, that's one thing. But they're only hearing one side of the story.

JOHNSON: Congress wants more documents and it wants to hear from ATF and Justice Department officials. But officials say their hands are tied because the gun trafficking investigation is still going on. They expect indictments of more senior figures in the U.S. and Mexico within the next couple of months. That could come too late in a Washington scandal machine already well under way.

Issa and other lawmakers headed to Mexico today for meetings on Fast and Furious. They're planning more hearings this summer.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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