Here is an excerpt from John Solomon, David Heath, and Gordon Witkin's piece for The Center for Public Integrity:
"Hoping to score a major prosecution of Mexican drug lords, federal prosecutors and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives permitted hundreds of guns to be purchased and retained by suspected straw buyers with the expectation they might cross the border and even be used in crimes while the case was being built, according to documents and interviews. The decision — part of a Phoenix-based operation code named “Fast and Furious” — was met by strong objections from some front-line agents who feared they were allowing weapons like AK-47s to “walk” into the hands of drug lords and gun runners, internal agency memos show. Indeed, scores of the weapons came back quickly traced to criminal activity... One of those front-line agents who objected, John Dodson, told the Center he and several of his colleagues wanted to intercept some of the weapons but their objections were repeatedly overruled by ATF supervisors. The supervisors instructed them to simply record the straw purchases in a database, flag them as 'suspect,' and monitor the suspected gun runners until evidence piled up about their connections to Mexican drug lords... Mark Chait, ATF’s assistant director in charge of field operations, told the Center he personally decided to change the strategy in September 2010 after years of futile efforts to interdict guns from small-time straw buyers with little hope of dismantling major drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. The agency’s earlier focus on straw buyers was criticized last fall in a review by the Justice Department’s inspector general of ATF’s border effort, known as Project Gunrunner... In addition, ATF officials have so far been frustrated in efforts to persuade the White House to implement even a simple change in firearm sales reporting requirements to help detect possible gun-running at the border." Link to Full Article
Analysis: There is a lot of information coming out about this scandal these days, and some are saying "Project Gunwalker" may end up being as big - if not bigger - than the Iran/Contra Affair. The article above is really long, and there are other stories I want to include snippets of before I offer my take. First, ATF Agent Dodson, who's mentioned in the story above, was interviewed by CBS News, and made some incendiary comments:
"Agent Dodson and other sources say the gun walking strategy was approved all the way up to the Justice Department. The idea was to see where the guns ended up, build a big case and take down a cartel. And it was all kept secret from Mexico... Senior agents including Dodson told CBS News they confronted their supervisors over and over... According to Dodson, 'They said, "Did you hear about the border patrol agent?" And I said, "Yeah." And they said "Well it was one of the Fast and Furious guns." There's not really much you can say after that.' Two assault rifles ATF had let go nearly a year before were found at Terry's murder." Link to CBS News story
As a result of this mess, the acting head of the ATF has ordered a review of the agency's efforts to combat southbound weapons trafficking:
"The statement, issued by ATF’s acting director, Kenneth E. Melson, said the agency 'will ask a multi-disciplinary panel of law enforcement professionals to review the bureau’s current firearms trafficking strategies employed by field division managers and special agents.' The statement said the review 'will enable ATF to maximize its effectiveness when undertaking complex firearms trafficking investigations and prosecutions. It will support the goals of ATF to stem the illegal flow of firearms to Mexico and combat firearms trafficking in the United States.'" Link to CPI blog post
First, let's start with the operation itself. This was (it appears) a standard sting operation. For those of you not entirely familiar with what that is, it's a law enforcement technique where the seller of some type of (usually illegal) item is either an officer or a civilian working in conjunction with the police. For example, a gas station clerk may be working with the police and selling cigarettes to minors who he knows are using fake IDs. Or an officer might work undercover as a drug dealer and sell illegal drugs to individuals repeatedly in order to help build up a case. In this instance, gun sellers were selling firearms to suspected straw buyers with ATF's knowledge under the guise that the ATF could track them and build a case against one or several Mexican DTOs. As you can now see, that didn't work out so well.
I asked a question on Twitter to my followers not long ago, "What's the difference between letting guns 'walk' in a sting operation and letting 'drugs' walk? Both kill." The best response I got was that the buyers and ultimate users of the drugs make a choice to use them, so they're responsible for any negative consequences that arise from that transaction. Likewise, a 16 year-old who uses a fake ID to buy cigarettes is ultimately responsible for any legal action brought against him, as well as any health problems that arise from smoking. The people who fall victim to the business end of firearms that are allowed to 'walk,' however, don't have that choice. Just ask USBP Agent Terry's family.
While in retrospect, most of us can agree that the ATF's decision to work a sting operation this was was a bad idea, I can understand why they chose to go that route. The ATF has been getting hammered by both the NRA and the Government Accountability Office for wasting too much time going after the "little guy" and individual straw buyers, and not putting forth enough effort to go after the whale. I imagine this was the ATF's attempt to trace those guns back to the ultimate purchaser - one of the major DTOs.
The problem is that the routes these guns follow once they cross into Mexico are quick, varied, and complex. They get stashed in warehouses, where they're later divided up and distributed to different people who may either be working directly for a DTO, or be subcontracted out as ad-hoc hitmen. This is all managed by mid-level people or lower, so the kingpins never see or handle the day-to-day operations of weapons movements in Mexico. Trying to nail a major DTO with a series of sting operations may have been laced with the best of intentions, but it was a pipe dream at best.
So what's next for the ATF? I don't know if anyone has a good answer for that. The agency bears the brunt of the mission to deter southbound weapons trafficking, and its main strategy in the last couple of years has been a scandalous bust. I have a feeling that no matter what revamped strategy they come up with, it will be overshadowed for some time with reports of guns turning up at crime scenes that are traced back to "Operation Gunwalker."