A primer on the "Fast and Furious" scandal

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Guns recovered by ATF Agents
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What is "gunwalking"?

"Gunwalking" is law enforcement vernacular for the concept of allowing criminal suspects to "walk" off with guns, without police interdicting or tracking them. It's widely considered taboo, since "walked" guns may be used in violent crimes, including murders.

What is "Project Gunrunner"?

"Project Gunrunner" is a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) national initiative under the Justice Department started in 2006 aimed at reducing US-Mexico cross-border drug and gun trafficking and violence.

What is "Fast and Furious"?

"Fast and Furious" is the name ATF assigned to a group of Phoenix, Arizona-area gun trafficking cases under Project Gunrunner that began in fall of 2009. It's the largest of several known operations in which ATF employed gunwalking, involving more than 2,000 weapons, including hundreds of AK-47 type semi-automatic rifles and .50 caliber rifles. According to sources who worked directly on the case, the vast majority of guns were not tracked and Mexico's government was not fully informed of the case. The ATF Special Agent in Charge of the operation was Bill Newell.

Complete coverage of the "Fast and Furious" scandal from CBS News

What is "Wide Receiver"?

"Wide Receiver" is the name ATF assigned to a group of gun trafficking cases investigated out of the Tucson, Arizona office beginning in 2006. Like Fast and Furious, it was supervised by ATF Special Agent in Charge Bill Newell. Sources indicate it involved about 275 "walked" guns. According to sources who worked directly on the case, the vast majority of guns were not tracked and Mexico's government was not fully informed of the case. Apparently worried that the gunwalking tactics could be viewed as inappropriate, federal prosecutors in Arizona abandoned the case. Then, in fall of 2009, Justice Department officials decided to go ahead and prosecute the case.

How did Fast and Furious start?

A number of Federal Firearms Licensed (FFL) gun dealers in the Phoenix area routinely contacted ATF when they noticed suspicious customers attempting purchases; for example, someone ordering large numbers of AK-47 variant rifles and other so-called "weapons of choice" used by the Mexican drug cartels, and paying with large sums of cash brought in a paper bag. But starting in fall 2009, instead of stopping the transactions or questioning the customers, ATF often encouraged select gun dealers to go ahead and complete suspicious sales. ATF further asked the gun dealers to continue to cooperate by selling to the suspicious customers repeatedly, and providing ATF with names and weapons' serial numbers. Several gun dealers expressed concerns to ATF: they worried if they cooperated in selling guns to suspected criminals, they would later be unfairly blamed or even prosecuted, and that some of the weapons might be used one day to murder federal agents.

What was the motivation for ATF to employ such a controversial tactic?

Many U.S.-sold guns were being trafficked to Mexico and used in drug cartel violence. Though the exact percentage and number is the subject of debate, ATF was tasked with trying to stop the flow of guns. A year after Fast and Furious began, ATF remained under pressure from a Nov. 2011 Inspector General review (PDF) of Project Gunrunner that criticized ATF's focus on low level gun dealers and straw purchasers "rather than on higher-level traffickers, smugglers, and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns."

ATF officials who supported "gunwalking" say they thought that by seeing where the guns later "ended up" in Mexico would help them take down a cartel big fish.

Who thought up the idea to use gunwalking to try to counter gun trafficking to Mexican drug cartels?

Nobody has publicly acknowledged being the architect of the plan and available documents shed no light on the answer. Justice Department officials have maintained it was a scandal brainstormed at the ATF Phoenix level. The same ATF Special Agent in Charge, Bill Newell, supervised the Bush era Wide Receiver gunwalking operation and some of the later gunwalking cases, including Fast and Furious.

How did Fast and Furious come to light and who was Brian Terry?

Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was gunned down on Dec. 14, 2010 in Arizona just north of the Mexican border, allegedly by illegal aliens armed with at least two AK-47 variant rifles trafficked by Fast and Furious suspects who had not been arrested by ATF. The public was not told about the link between Terry's murder and Fast and Furious, nor was the gunwalking revealed. But ATF insiders began sharing their concerns anonymously online, including to the forum CleanupATF.org. Gun rights advocates including David Codrea and Mike Vanderboegh wrote extensively on the controversy and rumors surrounding Terry's death, and the allegation that ATF was attempting to "bump up its case numbers" by letting large numbers of guns "walk" into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Several ATF agents became whistleblowers and contacted Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who began investigating the controversy in Jan. 2011. CBS News spoke to a half dozen ATF sources and reported the story on Feb. 22, 2011.

On March 3, 2011, the first ATF whistleblower, John Dodson, spoke publicly to CBS News.

Who was Jaime Zapata?

Jaime Zapata was an Immigration and Customs Special Agent under the Department of Homeland Security who was ambushed and murdered on assignment on a desolate road in Mexico on Feb. 15, 2011, two months after Brian Terry was murdered. Two weapons used in Zapata's murder were linked to suspects who had been under ATF surveillance for at least six months before Zapata's murder, but were not arrested.

What are Operations "Castaway," "Too Hot to Handle," and the Hernandez case?

Operations Castaway and Too Hot to Handle are among a dozen or so other cases ATF operated that allegedly employed gunwalking in recent years including Florida, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. In the Hernandez case, started under the Bush Administration in 2007, documents show ATF agents watched several suspects and weapons cross the border in coordination with Mexican officials who then failed to stop the suspects, so they were lost.

What's the controversy over the Justice Department's Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Sen. Grassley?

In its earliest response to Sen. Grassley's questions about the gunwalking operation, the Justice Department sent a letter that contained inaccurate information. The letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, stated that ATF never "knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico." Ten months later, the Justice Department withdrew the letter acknowledging that it contained inaccuracies. In April 2012, Weich announced his intention to resign from the Justice Department to become dean of the University of Baltimore Law School. Documents subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee, but not turned over, include Justice Department communications after the Feb. 4, 2011 letter leading up to the Dec. 2011 retraction of the inaccurate letter. Republicans in Congress want to see who-knew-when that the Feb. 4 assertion denying gunwalking was false, and why it took ten months for the administration's retraction.

What law enforcement agencies were involved in "Fast and Furious"?

Records show that in addition to ATF; Immigration and Customs (ICE) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Arizona US Attorney's office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) played roles in Fast and Furious.

Who is the highest-ranking official who has admitted knowing about gunwalking?

The head of the Justice Department's criminal division, Lanny Breuer, is the highest-ranking official who admits knowing that ATF had used the tactic of gunwalking early on. Breuer's deputy wrote him in April 2010 that in Wide Receiver, a case started under the Bush Administration. "ATF let a bunch of guns walk," and said it could be "embarrassing" to ATF. When those documents were made public on Oct. 31, 2011, Breuer issued a statement saying he didn't alert others in Justice Department leadership about the gunwalking, that he "regrets" not having done so, and that he likewise regretted not alerting leaders about the similarities between Wide Receiver, started in 2006, and Fast and Furious, started in 2009, at a time when the Justice Department's public position was that no gunwalking had ever occurred. Documents show two other justice officials mulled over gunwalking in Wide Receiver on Oct. 18, 2011 as they discussed the pros and cons of prosecuting the case. "It's a tricky case given the number of guns that have walked but is a significant set of prosecutions," wrote Jason Weinstein, Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division. Deputy Chief of the National Gang Unit James Trusty replied "I'm not sure how much grief we get for 'guns walking.' It may be more like, "Finally they're going after the people who sent guns down there."

What have Bush Administration officials said about Wide Receiver under their watch?

Former Bush Administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (Attorney General from Feb. 2005- Sept. 2007) has denied repeated interview and information requests made by CBS News. In a 2006 memo to the US Attorney's office, an ATF attorney outlined a gunwalking proposal from his agency and stated that he had "moral objections" to the idea. In an interview with CBS News, the US Attorney at the time, Paul Charlton, said he had no memory of the memo but that "I don't believe I would or ever did approve letting guns walk." However, we know the gunwalking operation proceeded anyway. (In a strange twist, Charlton is the lawyer for Brian Terry's family, but after questions about Wide Receiver, handed the lead role in the case to a partner ). Gonzales' successor, Michael Mukasey (Attorney General from Nov. 2007-Jan. 2009) has provided no public comment. At a Senate Judiciary hearing on June 12, 2012 Holder claimed Mukasey "was briefed" on gunwalking tactics in Wide Receiver "and did nothing to stop them - nothing." When Sen. Grassley asked Holder's office to provide any evidence to back the claim, Holder retracted it saying the statement was "inadvertent."

What's the controversy over wiretap applications?

Several detailed wiretap applications were approved by the Justice Department's Breuer for Fast and Furious in 2011. Republicans who were provided the applications by a source contend the documents disclose that gunwalking tactics were being used and, therefore, the Justice Department was well aware of gunwalking despite the agency's subsequent denials. The Justice Department disputes that, and says approving the wiretap applications doesn't mean Breuer actually read the applications or was aware of the tactics of letting guns walk. The wiretap applications are technically under court seal, and so neither side has released them to the public.

What is Attorney General Holder's position on what-he-knew-when?

Holder has consistently denied knowing anything about gunwalking within his agency when it was occurring. ATF is a division of Holder's Justice Department. He asked the Justice Department Inspector General to investigate in late February 2011. That investigation is ongoing. Holder has answered Congressional questions on Fast and Furious at nine hearings. On May 3, 2011 he told a Judiciary Committee hearing, "I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks." Yet documents show that at least ten months before the hearing, frequent memos discussing Fast and Furious were addressed to Holder. There were memos dating as far back as July 2010 to Holder from Breuer and the head of the National Drug Intelligence Center. However, the Justice Department says Holder didn't read the memos, and that any mention of Fast and Furious did not discuss the controversial gunwalking tactics. The Justice Department also said that Holder misunderstood the question at the May 3, 2011 hearing and that, while he heard of Fast and Furious much earlier than he'd stated, he meant to say that he hadn't heard specifically about any gunwalking.

What is the White House position on who-knew-what-when?

President Obama has consistently said he knew nothing of any gunwalking while it was occurring. When asked about the gunwalking allegations by a reporter from Univision on March 22, 2011, President Obama stated that "a serious mistake may have been made." He also stated that there would be an investigation and whoever was found to be responsible would be held accountable. Documents and testimony since that time indicate then-National Security staffer at the White House named Kevin O'Reilly repeatedly communicated by email and telephone with ATF Special Agent in Charge of Fast and Furious, Bill Newell, about the case while it was under way. O'Reilly indicated in one email that he wanted to share information about the case with other National Security staffers, but stated that it would go no further than that. White House officials have said there is no evidence that Newell and O'Reilly ever discussed the controversial tactic of gunwalking and, on those grounds, have blocked the attempts of Congressional Republicans to interview O'Reilly, who has since been sent on assignment to Iraq for the State Department. In documents turned over by the White House to date, there is no evidence the President or others at the White House had knowledge of gunwalking.

What is "Grenadewalker"?

"Grenadewalker" refers to another controversial ATF case out of Phoenix. In it, Jean Baptiste Kingery allegedly smuggled parts for as many as 2,000 grenades from the US to Mexico for killer drug cartels, sometimes under the direct watch of US law enforcement. Sources say Kingery could have been prosecuted twice in the US for violating export control laws but that each time, prosecutors in Arizona refused to make a case. In one instance, Kingery had allegedly gotten caught leaving the US with 114 disassembled grenades in a tire, but the ATF agent on the case says he was ordered by the US Attorney's office to let Kingery go because the grenade parts were "novelty items" and the case "lacked jury appeal." A year and a half after Kingery was first let go, Mexican authorities raided Kingery's stash house and factory and found materials for 1,000 grenades. Kingery allegedly admitted teaching cartels how to make grenades as well as helping cartel members convert semi-automatic rifles to fully-automatic.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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