Project Gun-Runner: 2011 Testimony Before the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform

— This article, written by Jerry Cates, was first published on 9 September 2011, and was last revised on 29 April 2014:

Project Gun-Runner, also known as Fast-And-Furious, appears to be a serious example of governmental misconduct. Because it led to the deaths of uncountable numbers of Mexican citizens south of our borders, and to the death of at least one of our border patrol officers, it easily rises to the level of felonious criminal behavior of an alarmingly high degree.

One wonders why our legislative leaders have not insisted that all who engaged it this program, at least at the loftiest levels, and who at any level whatever pushed its agenda by actively thwarting the efforts of lower-level personnel bent of bringing it to an end, be charged with criminal acts, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and — on conviction — imprisoned at hard labor for their crimes.

If the evidence thus far brought to light is representative, there is absolutely no excuse for what these governmental employees did. The fact that they were employed by the U.S. Government at the time, or were elected or appointed officials, does not — as some appear to believe — grant them a kind of immunity, but instead makes their crimes all the more reprehensible. They betrayed the American people, the law, and the constitution which they were sworn to uphold.

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Read the Joint Staff Report: A summary of ATF Agent Testimony prior to 14 June 2011.

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15 June 2011: Phoenix ATF Special Agent John Dodson testifying at the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform.

TRANSCRIPT (6/15/11):

“Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Cummings, other honorable members of this committee, I thank you.

“Beginning with my military service and continuing through to this day, I’m proud to have spent nearly my entire adult life in service of this country under sworn oath to defend its constitution with my allegiance always pledged to this republic.

“I’ve spent the vast majority of my law enforcement career conducting criminal investigations, with a particular focus on those involving the trafficking of narcotics and firearms. I have been involved in countless investigations and arrests -from basic misdemeanors to complex conspiracies of international drug trafficking organizations many times as an undercover. I have made thousands of investigative stops and scores of arrests, and have testified many times in federal and state courts across this country often as a qualified expert.

“I do not appear before you as some remote observer of these events, casting a judgmental finger at the actions of others. I come, as I’ve been asked to do, bearing only my first hand account. I have not the burden of rendering judgment, determining responsibility, or holding others accountable; I yield those to this committee. The only message I hope to convey is that through this process some resolve may finally be brought to the families of Brian Terry and Jaime Zapata; that we may truly honor their service and mourn in their sacrifice.

“I hope your inquiry, and those of Sen. Grassley’s office and the Inspector General, will yield the true account for the many others on both sides of our border who have already been or will be affected by this operation.

“Furthermore, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to appear here today alongside the Terry family so that I may personally express to them my sorrow and my regret.

“Simply put, during this operation referred to as “Fast and Furious,” we – the ATF – failed to fulfill one of our most fundamental obligations: to caretake the public trust, in part to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

“When I became involved in this operation in late 2009, the ATF agents running it briefed me that the local Phoenix firearms dealers had provided them with a list of more than 40 individuals whom they believe to be purchasing guns for others – straw purchasers. Of these individuals, several were members or believed to have connections with Mexican drug cartels. Those identified straw purchasers were the initial suspects of this investigation. From the earliest days of the operation after the briefing, I had no question that the individuals we were watching were acting as straw purchasers and that the weapons they purchased would soon be trafficked to Mexico and/or other locales along the southwest border or elsewhere in the United States, and ultimately these firearms would be used in a violent crime. However, we did nothing to intervene.

“Over the course of the next 10 months that I was involved, we monitored as they purchased handguns, AK-47 variants, .50 caliber rifles almost daily at times. Rather than conduct any enforcement actions, we took notes, we recorded observations, we tracked movements of these individuals, we wrote reports but nothing more. Knowing all the while just days sometimes after these purchases the guns that we saw these individuals buy would be turning up at crime scenes in the United States or Mexico. Yet we still did nothing.

“I recall, for example, one suspect as he met with another receive a bag full of cash. That cash then proceeded to a local FFL, who conducted a transaction of firearms that we had authorized him to do. The straw purchaser then left the federal firearms dealer and met again with that third party and delivered the firearms to him. And still we did nothing.

“Although my instincts made me want to intervene and interdict those weapons, my supervisor directed me and my colleagues not to make any stop or arrest but rather to keep him under surveillance while allowing the guns to walk. Surveillance operations like these were the rules; they’re not the exceptions. This is not a matter of some weapons that had gotten away from us or allowing a few to walk so that we could follow them to a much larger or more significant target. Allowing loads of weapons that we knew would be destined for criminals was the plan. This was the mandate.

“I remember a lecture by Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, and I borrow from it now: ATF is supposed to be the guardians, the sheep dogs, that protect against the wolves that prey upon us especially along our southern border. But rather than meet the wolf head-on, we sharpened his teeth, added numbers to his claw, all the while we sat idly by watching, tracking, and noting as he became a more efficient and effective predator.

“Prior to my coming to Phoenix, I’d never been involved in or ever heard of an operation in which law enforcement officers would let guns walk. The very idea of doing so is unthinkable to most law enforcement. I and other field agents involved in this operation repeatedly raised these concerns with our supervisors. In response, we were told that we simply did not understand the plan.

“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. I hope the committee will receive a better explanation than I.

“Thank you again for the opportunity to appear here today before you, and I look forward to answering any questions that any of you may have.”

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15 June 2011: ATF Special Agent Olindo James Casa testified at the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform on how Phoenix Group 7′s policy had allowed gun trafficking to thrive near the U.S.-Mexico border:

TRANSCRIPT (6/15/11):

“Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Good morning, Mr. Cummings. Good morning honorable members of Congress. My name is Olindo James Casa, and I’m a senior special agent with the Bureau of ATF.

“I’ve been employed with ATF since March of 1993 as both an inspector and, later, as a special agent. I’m currently assigned to the Phoenix field division, Phoenix Group 7, and also of Strike Force Group. I’ve been assigned to that group since December 2009 to the present.

“As a special agent with the ATF, I’ve been a case agent, I’ve been a cold-case agent, and I’ve participated in many firearms trafficking investigations, both domestic and international in scope. Needless to say, I feel I have extensive experience in regards to firearms trafficking investigations. My work has resulted in the successful prosecution of many individuals who have violated the law.

“After reporting to Phoenix Group 7 office in December 2009, I was briefed by group members on the investigation “Fast and Furious.” Shortly after, I became aware of what I believed to be unusual and questionable investigative techniques. For instance, I became aware of certain straw purchasers were purchasing numerous firearms from firearm dealers. What I found concerning and alarming was – more times than not – no law enforcement activity was planned to stop these suspected straw purchasers from purchasing firearms. The only law enforcement activity that was occasionally taken was to conduct a surveillance of the transaction and then nothing more.

“As the investigation progressed over the next couple of months, additional suspected straw purchasers were identified – again with no obvious attempts to interdict the weapons or interview the suspects. Around the same time, Phoenix Group 7′s office was said to receive numerous firearm traces, detailing firearms recoveries in the country of Mexico. Many of those traces disclose aforementioned straw purchasers responsible for purchasing those recovered firearms.

“At this time, several special agents in the group, including myself, became increasingly concerned and alarmed at Case Agent Hope McAllister and Group Supervisor Dave Voth’s refusal to stop or address the suspected straw purchasers from purchasing additional firearms.

“Special Agent John Dodson and I continually raised our concerns directly with the case agent, Cold Case Agent Tonya English, and Group Supervisor Voth, to no avail.

“In response to our increasingly voiced concerns, the group supervisor issued the infamous “schism” email to the group. In essence, the email was a direct threat to the agents who were not in agreement on how Case Agent McAllister, Cold Case Agent English, or how Group Supervisor Voth managed the investigation. Based on my 18 years of experience with the ATF, I did not think the email was an empty threat. I took it very seriously.

“It’s been common practice for ATF supervisors to retaliate against employees who do not blindly tow the company line. Sometime in March 2010, at the direction of Group Supervisor Voth, the Case Agent McAllister, daily surveillance of straw purchasers started to be conducted by members of Group 7 as well as ATF special agents from other offices who were detailed to assist with the Operation Fast and Furious.

“ATF Field Agent Lawrence Alt reported to the Phoenix 7 group office around this period of time and, like Special Dodson and I, became alarmed of the direction of the investigation and spoke out against the practices that were being utilized.

“My role during these daily surveillances was that of shift supervisor. As a shift supervisor, my responsibility was to oversee field agents at the direction of Case Agent McAllister, Cold Case Agent English, and/or Group Supervisor Dave Voth.

“In general, my fears were realized while on these aforementioned surveillances. On numerous cases, the surveillance team followed straw purchasers to Phoenix area firearms dealers and would observe these straw purchasers buy and depart with numerous firearms in hand. Those firearms included but not limited to AK-47s variant rifles, .50 caliber rifles, 5.7 millimeter FM pistols – all of which are devastating weapons.

“On many of those occasions the surveillance team would follow the straw purchasers either to residences, a public location, or until the surveillance team was spotted by straw purchasers but the end result was always the same: the surveillance was terminated by the case agent, cold case agent, or supervisor without interdicting or seizing the firearms.

“On several occasions, I personally requested to interdict or seize the firearm in such a manner that would only further their investigation, but I was always told to stand down and not to seize the firearms. I made these requests over the air and have many law enforcement witnesses that can verify my assertions.

“Reflecting back to that period of time during the investigation, I thought the poor decisions made were due to incompetency or lack of experience, which would have make the situation better. Unfortunately, in light of recent documents released briefing paper dated January 8, 2010, it appears the investigation was conducted in a recklessly planned manner with a specific strategy in mind. Per the briefing paper, the strategy was to allow the transfer of firearms to take place in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators who would continue to operate in illegal traffic of firearms to Mexican trafficking organizations.

“Special Agent Dodson, Special Agent Alt, and I – at times on a daily basis – have warned the Case Agent, the Cold Case Agent, the Group Supervisor of the reckless course they were taking in regards to the investigation. We sternly warned them of the consequences of their actions but were repeatedly ignored. In fact, on at least a couple of occasions, I witnessed Special Agent Dodson asked as both Special Agent McAllister and Group Supervisor Voth if they were prepared to attend the funeral of a slain agent or officer after he or she was killed with one of those straw purchase firearms. Neither one answered or even seemed concerned by the question posed to them.

“To close, I’d like to extend my heartfelt condolences to Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s family. I’m truly sorry for your loss. I hope you find peace.”

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16 June 2011:  ATF Special Agent Peter Forcelli testified before the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform regarding Phoenix Group 7′s instructions to Phoenix agents to allow suspects to walk weapons that would land in criminal hands, supposedly in hopes that a larger gun-trafficking network would be uncovered.  Over 2,000 assault rifles, high-caliber rifles, and handguns were accordingly handed over to dangerous Mexican drug cartels, with the full approval of the BATFE.

Former US Attorney Dennis Burke, who has since resigned, is implicated in this program in Forcelli’s testimony.

One of the guns involved was later used to murder border patrol agent Brian Terry.  According to Forcelli, when Gabrielle Giffords was shot back in January, “There was a state of panic, like oh, God, let’s hope this is not a weapon from that case.”

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Opening statement of Peter J. Forcelli, Supervisory Special Agent, ATF, June 15, 2011.

Good morning, Chairman Issa, Ranking Member Cummings and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee today.

I am present here today, to provide truthful testimony before the committee, which I hope will assist your inquiry into the ATF investigation that has come to be known as “Operation Fast and Furious.” I believe that your inquiry is essential. There have been grave mistakes made in this case. The committee, the American People, and the family of slain U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry deserve answers.

Please allow me to give you a little background information about myself. I have always found it best to start from the beginning when laying out facts. In 1987, I began my career in law enforcement with the New York City Police Department. I worked in Bronx County, often referred to as “The Bronx” as a uniformed police officer, and then ultimately as a detective in the Bronx Homicide Task Force. In my career, I estimate that I have responded to approximately 600 homicide scenes. The vast majority were drug related, and were committed by armed criminals. These violent criminals, armed with illegal firearms, had little regard for human life.

I retired early from the New York City Police Department in June of 2001 to take a position with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), as it was then known. I did this because I had the honor of working hand in hand with ATF agents who were doing incredible work in investigating violations of the law with the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Southern District (SDNY) and Eastern District of New York (EDNY). In working with these offices, one thing was very clear. Dedicated prosecutors worked hand in hand with dedicated ATF agents to make cases that truly impacted the safety of the public. There was an absolute sense of teamwork and respect.

Some of the cases I had the honor of working on were the “Sex, Money, Murder Bloods” investigation, which involved multiple homicides, drug trafficking and racketeering. The “Neese Bello Organization” investigation, which involved over 100 Hobbs Act violations. “Operation Stadium Shadow”, which solved six homicides, and resulted in the release of two men who were wrongfully accused, and, in fact, one convicted of murder. These are just a few of my cases.

Again, I’ll use the words teamwork and respect. Together with the prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office with whom I had worked, we had used, confidential informants, proffers, cooperation agreements, “Writs of Habeas Corpus”, “Waivers of Speedy Presentment”, investigative grand juries, grand jury subpoenas and an abundance of other investigative tools to make successful cases as a part of a team.

I left the New York Field Division in March of 2007, to begin working in my current post of duty as the Group Supervisor of the Phoenix I Field Office. Within a matter of weeks, I was surprised at what I had observed. In my opinion, dozens of firearms traffickers were given a pass by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona. Despite the existence of “probable cause” in many cases, there were no indictments, no prosecutions, and criminals were allowed to walk free. In short, their office policies, in my opinion, helped pave a dangerous path.

Fortunately, the same could not be said of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to which we agents were forced to turn for prosecution of firearm cases. Victor Varela and his associates, who trafficked .50 caliber rifles to Mexican Drug Cartels, one of which was used to kill a Mexican military commander were successfully prosecuted by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, after the case was declined by Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley due to “corpus delecti” issues. Sadly, Mr. Varela was released from prison last July, due to the lesser sentencing guidelines for such offenses in state court, but the alternative- no prosecution- was unacceptable. Another case, which involved a corrupt federal firearms licensee, who was supplying guns to several firearms trafficking organizations, was declined by Mr. Hurley. This dealer, in his post- arrest statement, admitted that “approximately 1000 of his firearms” were trafficked to Mexico. Over one half -dozen of that dealer’s firearms were found in the immediate area around the body of Arturo Beltran-Leyva. Mr. Beltran-Leyva, who was the head of Beltran-Leyva Cartel, was killed in a fierce gun battle with the Mexican Naval Infantry in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Due the recalcitrance of the United States Attorneys Office in Arizona cases such as these were presented to the Arizona Attorney General for prosecution under state statutes subject to lesser criminal penalty than Federal Statutes. I believe that this situation, wherein the United States Attorneys Office for Arizona in Phoenix declined most of our firearm cases, was at lest one factor which led to the debacle of “Operation Fast and Furious.”

Fast forward to “Operation Fast and Furious” itself. ATF agents assigned to the Phoenix Field Division, with the concurrence of their local chain of command, “walked” guns. ATF agents allowed weapons to be provided to individuals whom they knew would traffic them to members of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). They did so by failing to lawfully interdict weapons that they knew were going to be delivered to members of DTOs, and they did so by encouraging federal firearms licensees to continue selling weapons that were destined for delivery to members of the DTOs where no interdiction efforts were planned.

When I voiced surprise and concern with this tactic to SAC William Newell and ASAC George Gillett, my concerns were dismissed. SAC Newell referred to the case as “groundbreaking” and bragged that “we’re the only people in the country doing this”. My other ASAC, Jim Needles, merely said “Pete, You know that if you or I were running the case, it wouldn’t be run this way”

This operation, which in my opinion endangered the American public, was orchestrated in conjunction with Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley. [Emory Hurley is the same Assistant U.S. Attorney who previously prevented agents from using some of the common and accepted law enforcement techniques that are employed elsewhere in the United States to investigate and prosecute gun crimes.] I have read documents that indicate that his boss, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, also agreed with the direction of the case.

Allowing firearms to be trafficked to criminals is a dangerous and deadly strategy. The thought that the techniques used in the “Fast and Furious” investigation would result in “taking down a cartel” given the toothless nature of the “straw purchasing law” and the lack of a “firearms trafficking statute” is, in my opinion, delusional.

Based upon my conversations with agents who assisted in this case, surveillance on individuals who had acquired weapons was often terminated far from the Mexican border. Therefore, while the case agents and others believed that the weapons were destined for Mexico, the potential exists that many were sent with cartel drugs to other points within the United States. As a career law enforcement officer, who has had to investigate the deaths of police officers, children and others at the hands of armed criminals, I was and continue to be horrified. I believe that these firearms will continue to turn up at crime scenes, on both sides of the border, for years to come.

In closing, I want the members of the committee and all Americans to know: This is not how ATF agents conduct business. I am very proud of some of the incredible work done by ATF agents around the country every day. Many ATF agents have given their lives in the performance of their duties. On my last trip to New York City, I participated in a homicide trial on a case that I initiated in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York. Three other separate homicide trials were also being conducted in that courthouse. Each was the result of work done by outstanding ATF case agents, who solved those murders through conducting complex criminal investigations, while working hand in hand with dedicated prosecutors. Like myself and the members of the Committee, they too want the truth to come out, and those who acted irresponsibly held accountable. They deserve it, the family of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry deserves it, and the American people demand it.

I thank you for your time today, and wish you Godspeed in this endeavor. God Bless America.

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15 June 2011: ATF Special Agent Olindo James Casa testified at the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform on how Phoenix Group 7′s policy had allowed gun trafficking to thrive near the U.S.-Mexico border:

TRANSCRIPT (6/15/11):

“Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Good morning, Mr. Cummings. Good morning honorable members of Congress. My name is Olindo James Casa, and I’m a senior special agent with the Bureau of ATF.

“I’ve been employed with ATF since March of 1993 as both an inspector and, later, as a special agent. I’m currently assigned to the Phoenix field division, Phoenix Group 7, and also of Strike Force Group. I’ve been assigned to that group since December 2009 to the present.

“As a special agent with the ATF, I’ve been a case agent, I’ve been a cold-case agent, and I’ve participated in many firearms trafficking investigations, both domestic and international in scope. Needless to say, I feel I have extensive experience in regards to firearms trafficking investigations. My work has resulted in the successful prosecution of many individuals who have violated the law.

“After reporting to Phoenix Group 7 office in December 2009, I was briefed by group members on the investigation “Fast and Furious.” Shortly after, I became aware of what I believed to be unusual and questionable investigative techniques. For instance, I became aware of certain straw purchasers were purchasing numerous firearms from firearm dealers. What I found concerning and alarming was – more times than not – no law enforcement activity was planned to stop these suspected straw purchasers from purchasing firearms. The only law enforcement activity that was occasionally taken was to conduct a surveillance of the transaction and then nothing more.

“As the investigation progressed over the next couple of months, additional suspected straw purchasers were identified – again with no obvious attempts to interdict the weapons or interview the suspects. Around the same time, Phoenix Group 7′s office was said to receive numerous firearm traces, detailing firearms recoveries in the country of Mexico. Many of those traces disclose aforementioned straw purchasers responsible for purchasing those recovered firearms.

“At this time, several special agents in the group, including myself, became increasingly concerned and alarmed at Case Agent Hope McAllister and Group Supervisor Dave Voth’s refusal to stop or address the suspected straw purchasers from purchasing additional firearms.

“Special Agent John Dodson and I continually raised our concerns directly with the case agent, Cold Case Agent Tonya English, and Group Supervisor Voth, to no avail.

“In response to our increasingly voiced concerns, the group supervisor issued the infamous “schism” email to the group. In essence, the email was a direct threat to the agents who were not in agreement on how Case Agent McAllister, Cold Case Agent English, or how Group Supervisor Voth managed the investigation. Based on my 18 years of experience with the ATF, I did not think the email was an empty threat. I took it very seriously.

“It’s been common practice for ATF supervisors to retaliate against employees who do not blindly tow the company line. Sometime in March 2010, at the direction of Group Supervisor Voth, the Case Agent McAllister, daily surveillance of straw purchasers started to be conducted by members of Group 7 as well as ATF special agents from other offices who were detailed to assist with the Operation Fast and Furious.

“ATF Field Agent Lawrence Alt reported to the Phoenix 7 group office around this period of time and, like Special Dodson and I, became alarmed of the direction of the investigation and spoke out against the practices that were being utilized.

“My role during these daily surveillances was that of shift supervisor. As a shift supervisor, my responsibility was to oversee field agents at the direction of Case Agent McAllister, Cold Case Agent English, and/or Group Supervisor Dave Voth.

“In general, my fears were realized while on these aforementioned surveillances. On numerous cases, the surveillance team followed straw purchasers to Phoenix area firearms dealers and would observe these straw purchasers buy and depart with numerous firearms in hand. Those firearms included but not limited to AK-47s variant rifles, .50 caliber rifles, 5.7 millimeter FM pistols – all of which are devastating weapons.

“On many of those occasions the surveillance team would follow the straw purchasers either to residences, a public location, or until the surveillance team was spotted by straw purchasers but the end result was always the same: the surveillance was terminated by the case agent, cold case agent, or supervisor without interdicting or seizing the firearms.

“On several occasions, I personally requested to interdict or seize the firearm in such a manner that would only further their investigation, but I was always told to stand down and not to seize the firearms. I made these requests over the air and have many law enforcement witnesses that can verify my assertions.

“Reflecting back to that period of time during the investigation, I thought the poor decisions made were due to incompetency or lack of experience, which would have make the situation better. Unfortunately, in light of recent documents released briefing paper dated January 8, 2010, it appears the investigation was conducted in a recklessly planned manner with a specific strategy in mind. Per the briefing paper, the strategy was to allow the transfer of firearms to take place in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators who would continue to operate in illegal traffic of firearms to Mexican trafficking organizations.

“Special Agent Dodson, Special Agent Alt, and I – at times on a daily basis – have warned the Case Agent, the Cold Case Agent, the Group Supervisor of the reckless course they were taking in regards to the investigation. We sternly warned them of the consequences of their actions but were repeatedly ignored. In fact, on at least a couple of occasions, I witnessed Special Agent Dodson asked as both Special Agent McAllister and Group Supervisor Voth if they were prepared to attend the funeral of a slain agent or officer after he or she was killed with one of those straw purchase firearms. Neither one answered or even seemed concerned by the question posed to them.

“To close, I’d like to extend my heartfelt condolences to Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s family. I’m truly sorry for your loss. I hope you find peace.”

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— Questions? Corrections? Comments? E-mail jerry.cates@govinthenews.info. You may also register, log in, and leave a detailed comment in the space provided below.

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