Gunwalker scandal called "perfect storm of idiocy"
Update, 2:40 p.m.: The special agent in charge of the Phoenix ATF office during gunwalking scandal, Bill Newell, testified early this afternoon that he discussed the program with a White House staffer.
Newell said he talked to his friend, Kevin O'Reilly, who is listed the White House's Director for North America at the National Security Council.
In advance of a hearing later today, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a report containing new testimony and allegations in the ATF gunwalker case. According to the report, Carlos Canino, Acting ATF Attache in Mexico, calls the strategy his agency employed: "The perfect storm of idiocy."
"We armed the [Sinaloa] cartel," Canino told investigators. "It is disgusting." Canino will be a key witness at the hearing.
But it's not just the Sinaloa cartel. Documents obtained by Congressional investigators show weapons - sold under ATF's watch in Operation Fast and Furious out of the Phoenix office - have been used by at least three Mexican drug cartels: Sinaloa, El Teo and La Familia.
In other words, Congressional investigators say the very agency charged with preventing weapons from falling into the hands of violent cartels south of the border ... instead facilitated it.
The Oversight Committee has used internal documents and information to showing where Fast and Furious weapons have shown up and been used in Mexico. It reveals more recoveries than Department of Justice has disclosed to the Committee in official answers ... and yet it's still only a partial picture.
The Department of Justice had no comment on that aspect of the report.
The first large recovery of weapons sold to suspected drug cartel traffickers under ATF's watch was on Nov. 20, 2009 in Naco, Sonora, Mexico. All 42 weapons (41 AK-47s and a giant .50 caliber rifle) traced back to Fast and Furious suspects. Some had been bought, turned around and delivered to the cartel practically overnight.
Yet ATF allowed the acquisitions and dealings to continue for more than a year, until December of last year, when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered. Two Fast and Furious assault rifles were recovered at the murder scene.
On a recent visit to Mexico, the Oversight Committee was allowed to view bullet holes in one of two Mexican government helicopters recently shot at by cartel members ... including a .50-caliber round that penetrated the bulletproof-glass windshield. Officials recovered Fast and Furious weapons among the suspects' cache.
Also, for the first time, Congressional investigators disclose names of some Justice Department officials whom witnesses, ATF agents, say knew about the controversial gunwalking operation.
Nobody at the Justice Department has publicly acknowledged approval of or a role in the case. President Obama has said neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder authorized the operation, and Holder asked the Inspector General to investigate.
But according to ATF witnesses, on March 5, 2010 ATF intelligence analysts told ATF and Justice Department leadership (including Main Justice Trial Attorney Joe Cooley) that straw firearms purchases in Fast and Furious had exceeded 1,000 and the weapons were ending up in Mexico. When concerns were raised, one witness present quoted Cooley as saying the movement of so many guns to Mexico was "an acceptable practice." The Justice Department had no comment on that.
In other testimony, former ATF Attache to Mexico Darren Gil repeated information he gave in an exclusive CBS News interview several months ago. He told investigators that the Justice Department's Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, was well aware of Fast and Furious, and referred to the case supportively when visiting Mexico.
The Justice Department neither confirmed nor denied what Breuer may have known, but when contacted yesterday afternoon, a spokesman called the allegation an "old charge." The spokesman added that wiretaps approved by the Justice Department are "narrow assessments" generally approved by Assistant Attorneys General, but "not Lanny."
Today's hearing will also focus on other allegations by Canino and Gil. They say their concerns about letting weapons fall into the hands of drug cartels were repeatedly brushed aside by higher-ups in ATF management. They also say ATF personnel denied them access to crucial information about the case, even though it directly involved their job duties and affected their host country, Mexico.
In response to the Oversight Committee report, the Department of Justice sent us this statement on Wednesday:
"The Committee's report promotes unsubstantiated theories by selectively releasing excerpts of transcripts while ignoring testimony and other information. For whatever reason, the leadership of the Committee chose not to release witness testimony that makes clear that operational details relating to this investigation were unknown to senior Department of Justice officials. The Department, like the Committee, is interested in getting to the bottom of the concerns raised by ATF agents about this operation, which is why the Attorney General has asked the Inspector General to investigate the matter. The Department continues to cooperate with the investigation, but the Committee must be willing to share all of the facts."
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