« What is the real national sentencing "mood" in our new era of budget-cut reforms? | Main | SCOTUS strikes down Stolen Valor Act, 6-3, finding First Amendment problem »

June 28, 2012

"Agent who started ‘Fast and Furious’ defends gunrunning operation"

The inter-branch sparring in the long-running brouhaha over the "Fast and Furious" gun operation has always seemed much more a political story than a criminal justice one.  Still, the enduring controversy surely has had significant federal criminal justice implications, at least by severly impacting relationship(s) between current members of Congress and the current Justice Department.  As the full House of Representative considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt based on a failure to provide full information about discussions of the operation, I wondered if reader have views concerning any potential (good or bad) long-term criminal justice implications of this scandal.  This Washington Post article, which shares the headline of this post, seems like a good prompt for urging F&F discussion to be more focused on criminal justice issues that political one.  Here is how the WaPo piece starts:

The “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation has been widely condemned by Republicans, Democrats and even top officials at the Justice Department as a failed sting. The case has led to the ouster of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, President Obama’s first use of executive privilege and a probable vote of contempt Thursday against the attorney general.

But in the eyes of the man who started and oversaw Fast and ­Furious, the operation remains an example of smart law enforcement — an approach that has simply been misunderstood. “It was the only way to dismantle an entire firearms-trafficking ring and stop the thousands of guns flowing to Mexico,” said William D. Newell, a veteran federal agent who spent five years as the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.

In his first public interview about the operation, Newell said he believed that he and his agents were working the largest gun-trafficking case of their careers and finally had a window into Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel.  To identify cartel members, ATF agents, beginning in 2009, watched as about 2,000 weapons purchased at Phoenix gun stores hit the streets; their goal was to trace them to the cartel.

But on Dec. 14, 2010, Operation Fast and Furious came crashing down. A Border Patrol agent was killed in the Arizona desert, and two AK-47s found at the scene were linked to Newell’s sting.  Agents working under him, enraged, went to lawmakers about the operation, sparking an 18-month investigation led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who called Fast and Furious “felony stupid.”

Ever the optimist, I am hopeful the long-term impact of the F&F controversy will be a greater disinclination by federal (and state?) officials and prosecutors to imagine and engineer criminal justice stings that might end up looking "felony stupid."  But I fear that I may just be looking too hard for a silver lining in this otherwise dark criminal justice cloud.

Related post:

June 28, 2012 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Agent who started ‘Fast and Furious’ defends gunrunning operation":


Just curious: Can anybody explain how ATF is supposed to target high-level cartel figures buying guns except by attempting to sell them in undercover operations? What other option is there besides simply deciding not to even try?

Simply arresting mules headed south with guns or north with drugs doesn't get you to the high-level folks. Neither do undercover stings involving one or just a few guns. I don't like how F&F turned out - not only because they lost track of the guns but because the deconfliction errors were staggering, with ATF targeting paid FBI informants in the cartel hierarchy - but as a practical matter I'd like to hear critics (starting with Darrell Issa) say how they could go after cartel gun purchasers any other way. Serious question: Would it be better if ATF threw up their hands and did nothing? Should undercover operations only be undertaken when there's a 0% chance of failure? This seems to be the present terms of debate.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 28, 2012 10:43:59 AM

'Should undercover operations only be undertaken when there's a 0% chance of failure?'

using that rationale they would never have caught bin Laden

Posted by: Frank Carpata | Jun 28, 2012 1:00:00 PM

Grits, perhaps you could explain how cartel members in Mexico were supposed to be nailed when the ATF didn't track the guns there and didn't even let the Mexican government know. This operation had virually zero chance of success in getting the cartel people, and to boot, put thousands of dangerous weapons on the street.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 28, 2012 2:10:19 PM

Thanks federalist, you've confirmed my sense that the most over the top critics do not in fact have an answer to the questions I posed.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 28, 2012 3:24:20 PM

Grits, you really are a moron. You think you're oh-so-enlightened blah blah blah, but you're just a silly poseur.

First of all, I don't see how "over the top" describes my post. Second, given the body count and the futility of conducting an operation designed to get at mexican cartels without assets in Mexico, it's not really in my court to figure out how to do this. There are a lot of things that are hard, but hard doesn't excuse dumb. And this was dumb--remeber, Holder put a stop to it, or that's the WH spin.

Perhaps, if they wanted to trace guns, they could have let far fewer guns walk and focus on a small number. Certainly, if you're going to take down Mexican cartels, cooperation with Mexico is a sine qua non.

Now try to answer my question, SFB.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 28, 2012 5:59:18 PM

The ATF is a thoroughly incompetent organization. Federalist would fit right in as an agent there.

Posted by: Vince Wright | Jun 28, 2012 6:23:53 PM

Classy, federalist, but typical, that you resort to name calling whenever you make a losing argument.

Anyway, selling fewer guns doesn't get them to the cartel bigwigs. Try again: How do you make it up the cartel food chain past the mules and middlemen selling just a few guns at a time? Won't happen. But please, don't let reality get in the way of your opinion.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 28, 2012 10:41:08 PM

The causal factor for the violence in Mexico is not the drug trade or the guns but the breakdown of cooperation between the Mexican Government and the cartels. Historically, the cartels have worked with the government and the government worked with the cartels. During that regime, there was very little drug related violence perpetrated on the general population. Most Americans can't fathom that concept, but growing up on the border, I learned that, that was an ordinary fact of life. You can disagree with this policy, but this arrangement worked very well for five decades.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Jun 29, 2012 9:35:10 AM

grits, funny how you cant answer my question. In any event, I must confess I don't have the mind of a liberal. The WH takes credit for Holder putting a stop to this program, but there's some sort of anti-anti F & F mentality in libs' heads because why, it's hard to stop a gun-running. Well, lots of things are hard, but stupidity when dealing with hard things is still stupidity. No one accountable to the public defends this program. No one. And now you ask, as some sort of sly defense, well how would you do it? Well, I said that cooperation with Mexico is a sine qua non. That's obvious. Since keeping track of thousands of guns appears to be well-nigh impossible (and the issues with Linebacker would have told you that), then it has to be a lesser number. Grab guns on the border--that way you can get them nailed for export law violations.

And maybe, moron, getting to the cartel bigwigs with guns isn't the right way to go. What are you going to try them for, illegal gun possession in violation of Mexican law? This program never had a chance of getting cartel bigwigs--at best it could get the guys who took from the straw purchasers before the guns went to Mexico.


Posted by: federalist | Jun 29, 2012 11:17:50 AM

i'm kind of with fed here! i'm still trying to find the records of the election that made the U.S Policemen of the world!

I dont' care what the mexican's are doing as long as it STAYS in mexico!

Our own gov has no legal right to allow something they KNOW is criminal to leave the country to go to mexico or anywhere else for that matter. Our govt's job is to SECURE OUR border! in and out! If they can't do that . Might be past time for a NEW GOVT! Since under our constution that is JOB ONE!

If the mexican govt can't get it's shit together and the country has become a threat well then might be time to carpet bomb the place with neutron warheads and the in 2 weeks recolonize it!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 29, 2012 12:10:15 PM

"If the mexican govt can't get it's shit together and the country has become a threat well then might be time to carpet bomb the place with neutron warheads and the in 2 weeks recolonize it!"

Dude, you're talking about killing millions of innocent people. Please get back on your meds.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 29, 2012 2:09:10 PM

nope i'm talking about killing god knows how many drug dealers and their ENABLERS! They have had decades to get a handle on the problem and it just seems to be getting not only worse but spreading!

time to cauterize the wound and move on!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 30, 2012 1:31:35 AM

as for getting BACK on my meds! where's that same crack about obama, both bushes and beyond! just how many 1,000's if not more INNOCENTS they have killed! and i'm not talking about during their ILLEGAL undeclared wars..but afterward with their drones and military sweeps into countries not even part of it!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 30, 2012 1:33:47 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB