Congress irate over ATF guns-to-Mexico program

CBS

Congress grilled representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Department of Justice Wednesday over a program that intentionally let guns flow over the border into Mexico -- and into the hands of criminals -- in order to track drug cartels.

CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson broke the story on the CBS Evening News in March. Earlier this year, two of the guns may have been used in the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, prompting outrage and investigations, Attkisson reports.

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Six months ago today, border patrol agent Brian Terry was gunned down. Today, three senior ATF agents sat beside Terry's mom, cousin and sister -- and said their agency may be to blame.

Two of the guns found at the scene of Terry's murder were part of thousands the ATF allegedly allowed gun traffickers to purchase. The ATF called it letting "guns walk" -- a tactic they hoped would lead to them to drug kingpins. Agents who disagreed with the strategy blew the whistle.

"To walk a single gun is in my opinion an idiotic move," said ATF senior special agent Pete Forcelli. "We weren't giving guns to people who were hunting bear. We were giving guns to people who were killing other humans."

After Terry's murder, ATF quickly rounded up gun trafficking suspects they'd watched for a year. That's when the first reports of gunwalking began to surface. Asked if they were true at the time, ATF Phoenix chief Bill Newell told reporters "hell no" -- surprising those who worked for him.

"I was appalled, because it was a blatant lie," Forcelli said. Newell didn't respond to interview requests.

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Also under attack: the Justice Department which oversees the ATF. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich says the agency is cooperating with Congress, but Rep. Darryl Issa says information is being withheld.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," Issa said at the hearing Wednesday holding up a blacked-out sheet of paper. "The pages go on like this forever. You've given us black paper instead of white paper. How dare you make an opening statement of 'cooperation.'"

Issa pressed Weich on who in Washington authorized the program -- and received no answer.

"There was serious profound disagreement about strategy -- but the common goal was to stop gun trafficking to Mexico," Weich said. "Some of the testimony provided today is of great concern. That is why the attorney general asked the inspector general to look into it."

When Brian Terry was gunned down last December, he'd already mailed Christmas gifts.

"The gifts that Brian had picked out with such thought and care began to arrive in the mail that same week," recalled Terry's cousin Robert Heyer, a Secret Service agent. "With each delivery, we felt the indescribable pain of Brian's death."

Terry's family wants someone to accept responsibility. The Department of Justice inspector general is investigating -- and any gunwalking that was taking place has been halted.

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  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

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

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