One day ahead of a House vote to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, a six month investigation by Fortune magazine found that Arizona-based agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives never purposefully allowed guns to “walk” during Operation Fast and Furious.
The extensive piece by investigative journalist Katherine Eban puts a dent in what had been accepted as common wisdom by congressional investigators and journalists alike. Based on a review of over 2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviews with 39 people (including seven law-enforcement agents with “direct knowledge of the case”), the story concludes that agents never purposefully allowed weapons to be trafficked. Agents told Fortune they “seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.”
At one point during the investigation, the head of the unit Dave Voth was emailed by an ATF colleague in Texas who had picked up a number of weapons connected to the case and asked if they were just going to allow guns to “walk.”
“I am very offended by your e-mail,” Voth wrote back in August 2010. “Define walk? Without Probable Cause and concurrence from the USAO [U.S. Attorney’s Office] it is highway robbery if we take someone’s property.”
Voth was referring to the opinion of federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona, who said they wouldn’t bring a case against suspected straw purchasers earlier in the investigation because they didn’t believe federal law made what they were doing illegal.
Fortune reports that the assistant U.S. attorney leading Fast and Furious who wouldn’t bring the case in January 2010, Emory Hurley, is an avid gun enthusiast with limited experience with wiretaps. It was Hurley who suggested in January that agents wiretap a suspected recruiter of straw purchasers and get evidence he was directing them to buy weapons.
Later that month, a man purchased three rifles at Lone Wolf Trading Company, which flagged the suspicious purchases in a fax to ATF. Two of the weapons ended up at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder 11 months later, sparking the congressional investigation.
Plenty of Republicans are holding onto the conspiracy theory that Fast and Furious was a secret plot by the Obama administration to send guns to Mexico in order to boost public support for gun control. House Speaker John Boehner claimed Wednesday that he didn’t know whether the operation was about gun control, a plot Fortune’s piece “charitably” calls “far-fetched.”
Late update: Becca Glover Watkins, a spokeswoman for House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), issued this statement to TPM on the story:
Fortune’s story is a fantasy made up almost entirely from the accounts of individuals involved in the reckless tactics that took place in Operation Fast and Furious. It contains factual errors - including the false statement that Chairman Issa has called for Attorney General Holder’s resignation - and multiple distortions. It also hides critical information from readers - including a report in the Wall Street Journal - indicating that its primary sources may be facing criminal charges. Congressional staff gave Fortune Magazine numerous examples of false statements made by the story’s primary source and the magazine did not dispute this information. It did not, however, explain this material to its readers. The one point of agreement the Committee has with this story is its emphasis on the role Justice Department prosecutors, not just ATF agents, played in guns being transferred to drug cartels in Mexico. The allegations made in the story have been examined and rejected by congressional Republicans, Democrats, and the Justice Department.