Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mary Sanchez: Gun-tracking operation was foolish, fatal

Every kid who's ever played cops and robbers knows that the good guys try to keep guns away from the bad guys.

The last thing you'd do is sit around and watch crooks sell one another weapons; let them walk off with hundreds of AK-47s, sniper rifles and revolvers; then sit back and wait for the carnage.

But that's exactly what leaders within the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are charged with doing, in an apparently ploy to get close to Mexico's drug cartels.

The plan was dubbed "Operation Fast and Furious." "Foolish and Fatal" might be more accurate.

In 14 months, agents in Phoenix tracked the sales of more than 1,700 guns, mostly purchased by "straw" buyers — buyers procuring them for criminals. The goal was to then see where the guns turned up, in an attempt to bust drug kingpins.

Many ATF agents complained bitterly about the operation, frustrated that they were not allowed in many cases to make busts and seize weapons they knew were destined for cartel gunmen. They say they were told to go against all training and sense of humanity — to watch as guns were sold to straw buyers of suspected cartels, then let guns and the traffickers "walk." All in the interest of catching bigger fish.

Finally, tragedy occurred. In December 2010, U.S. border agents pursued a small group of armed criminals they believed were preying on undocumented immigrants crossing the border. In a shoot-out, agent Brian A. Terry was murdered. Two AK-47s were found by the 40-year-old ex-Marine's body in the Arizona desert. The initial sales of both guns from a Phoenix-area gun shop, along with serial numbers, had been carefully tracked by ATF agents.

Only with Terry's murder did the heated concerns of ATF agents find any traction. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., issued a report charging that Operation Fast and Furious has "contributed to the increasing violence and deaths in Mexico." More than 38,000 have died in drug violence in Mexico since 2006.

Some suggest that if a kingpin had been toppled during Fast and Furious, the outcome would be easier to stomach. Tell that to Terry's grieving family.

And that's not what happened.

A mere 20 straw buyers have been indicted for lying on forms they filled out to buy the guns. In the cases of the vast majority of those charged, ATF agents knew about their dealings before the operation began.

Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, began hearings on the ATF operation this month. It is worth asking whether the ATF officials are following best practices in their current Project Gunrunner operations — indeed, whether they would have been so eager to press on with them if it wasn't mostly Mexicans who were dying from the trafficked guns.

But it is also imperative to ask whether Issa's and Grassley's inquisitions aren't motivated — or at least tainted — by politics. Issa began his hearings by warning that no testimony would be admitted that commented on gun-control laws or legislation. That's a tell.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., countered that "no legitimate examination of this issue will be complete without analyzing our nation's gun laws, which allow tens of thousands of assault weapons to flood into Mexico from the United States every year."

How much do you want to bet that's a thread that won't be allowed to unravel in this or any hearing in the near future?