Report: Federal officials kept Mexico gun plans secret
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAYUpdated 8h 25m ago
WASHINGTON ? A senior federal gun agent acknowledged "mistakes"' in testimony Tuesday before a congressional committee about a risky gun trafficking investigation that allowed hundreds of weapons to fall into the hands Mexican drug cartel enforcers and other violent criminals on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Federal gun agents and Justice Department officials did not share crucial information about the trafficking investigation with their U.S. colleagues in Mexico, even as those colleagues expressed concerns about a sudden spike in the number of U.S. guns linked to the probe that were being recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, congressional investigators found in a report out Tuesday.
"The advantage of hindsight and the benefit of a thorough review of this case clearly points me to things that I would have done differently," Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives Deputy Assistant Director William McMahon told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "However good our intentions, regardless of our resource challenges, and notwithstanding the difficult legal hurdles we face in fighting firearms trafficers, we made mistakes."
McMahon's testimony comes after ATF field agents in Phoenix, where the trafficking strategy was launched, and U.S. agents in Mexico, who were denied information about the operation, assailed the investigation as a dangerous departure from long-standing agency policy.
"To put it bluntly, it is inconceivable in my mind, or the mind of any competent ATF special agent, to allow firearms to disappear,"' said Darren Gil, the ATF's former chief in Mexico.
The report prepared for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, concluded that Justice and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives officials in Arizona and Washington "kept their own personnel in Mexico ? totally in the dark" about the operation.
The officials feared, according to the report, that information about the operation would be leaked to the Mexican government or the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
The findings are part of a continuing congressional review of the ATF and its management of the trafficking strategy? known as Operation Fast and Furious. Federal authorities had hoped to build criminal cases against Mexican drug cartel leaders by allowing guns to move along the trafficking line into Mexico.
Instead, current and former ATF officials said, the operation allowed hundreds of weapons to fall into the hands of cartel enforcers in Mexico and other criminals along the southwest border.
It was shut down last December, following the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona. Two weapons recovered at the scene of Terry's murder were traced to the controversial, Phoenix-based ATF operation, which began in 2008. The weapon used to kill Terry has not yet been identified.
Carlos Canino, the ATF's acting chief in Mexico , and former ATF Mexico chief Darren Gil told congressional investigators that they first noticed a spike in guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes in the fall of 2009. Many of the weapons, Canino and Gil said, were traced back to the Phoenix area.
Alarmed at the number, Gil said he sought explanations from supervisors in Phoenix and Washington, who acknowledged that the weapons were part of an ongoing investigation. Yet, the supervisors would not provide details.
"Did you have any idea why you weren't being made aware of the specific details of this investigation?" investigators asked Gil, according to a transcript of the inquiry.
"I can tell you what I was told," he said. "They were afraid that I was going to either brief the (U.S.) ambassador on it or brief the Government of Mexico ? on it."
Gil and Canino are scheduled to testify about the program today before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The ATF officials in Mexico did not learn the full extent of the trafficking program until January 2011.
"Never in my wildest dreams ever would I have thought that this (allowing guns into Mexico) was a technique," Canino said. "Never. Ever. It just, it is inconceivable to me."