The details are as obscure as Charles Schumer’s soul. But the basics of Project Gunwalker are clear.
In October 2009, reversing a longstanding policy, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) began authorizing firearm dealers in the southwest to complete large illegal straw-man purchases. That is, the buyers had the legal right to purchase for themselves, but their suspected intent was to deliver the guns to Mexican drug cartels. The gun dealers knew it and contacted ATF. ATF officials knew it—and insisted that the hesitant dealers complete the sales.
Previously, ATF policy was to confiscate such guns and make arrests before the weapons crossed the border into the hands of Mexico’s infamously murderous thugs. Now, after okaying the sales, agents stood back and allowed the guns to “walk” across the border. At least 1,700 firearms went to gangsters, all with the consent of the U.S. federal government.
Why? Well, that’s the $64,000 question.
The plan was called Operation Fast and Furious, a part of Project Gunrunner. Gun blogger David Codrea (who, along with fellow blogger Mike Vanderboegh, ultimately exposed the scandal) satirically dubbed it Project Gunwalker.
Within a year, the scheme blew up catastrophically. Afterward, the ATF tried to justify its actions by claiming the “walking” was done in an effort to trace the weapons and track down big traders linked to the cartels. But that’s absurd. ATF lost track of them even before the guns traveled across the border. Nobody from ATF or the Justice Department notified Mexican officials of the scheme, which they surely would have done if the intent had been to follow the guns. They did this over the fervent protests of the ATF’s own attaché in Mexico City, whom they proceeded to leave out of the loop.
“Allowing loads of weapons that we knew to be destined for criminals, this was the plan.” Thus testified Special Agent John Dodson of ATF’s Phoenix Field Division, one of the first to speak out. “It was so mandated.”
ATF waited until the firearms were used in crimes in the U.S. or Mexico. Etrace, a computer system used by officials on both sides of the border, verified the origin of confiscated weapons. (According to congressional testimony, the ATF official in charge, David Voth, crowed as American firearms turned up at Mexican crime scenes.)
ATF field agents kept meticulous track of how many of the walked guns were used in crimes and regularly relayed that information to their superiors in D.C. Then the Obama administration and the usual suspects in Congress (Feinstein, Schumer, et al.) could tsk tsk about the shocking problem of U.S. guns getting into the hands of murderous Mexicans.
For a while, the media ate it up: Dirty Mexican bandits are getting American guns because the federal government doesn’t have enough power to stop it! We need tighter laws. More money and power for the ATF.
Then in December 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered. Two of the walked weapons were found at the crime scene. One can only imagine the chaos in the Phoenix, Arizona, ATF office (home of Fast and Furious) and in Washington, D.C., as top agents and executives scrambled to cover their backsides.
Matters got worse in February when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Jaime Zapata was murdered in Mexico. Walked guns were again implicated. Mexican officials also believe that ATF’s Fast and Furious weapons have been used to murder several hundred Mexican citizens, and possibly to bring down one military helicopter. Yes, you can imagine how desperate officials are to keep their fiasco quiet.
But in this age of the Internet, coverups aren’t so easy.
From the get-go, a core of ATF agents had objected to Operation Fast and Furious. As word of Terry’s death spread through the ranks, posters aired their concerns at CleanUpATF.org, a website established by conscientious agents to report on and rectify management waste, abuse, corruption and fraud. Gun bloggers Codrea and Vanderboegh, whose blogs frequently cover ATF abuses, have monitored that site for a long time. They also have their own sources within the agency.
As rumors resolved into facts, the bloggers contacted members of Congress, seeking to ensure whistleblower protection for the honest agents, first from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), then Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). They also blogged the developing story, pushed the mainstream media to cover it—and waited. Anxiously.
Finally, in June 2011, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued a report and held hearings. The Justice Department continued to stonewall. It ignored multiple letters and subpoenas from the committee. As of this writing, both Attorney General Eric Holder and ATF head Kenneth Melson have refused to testify before the committee despite repeated invitations to do so.
Even with the stonewalling, we’ve learned certain facts. One of those is that Fast and Furious resulted from a decision at the highest levels of Justice. It began in late 2009, just weeks after Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issued a memo demanding a change of tactics.
According to The Daily Beast: “The memo was prepared in connection with a previously unknown high-level Justice Department meeting in which representatives of key law enforcement agencies on the front lines of the border wars were summoned to discuss a new approach to combating border violence, according to government officials familiar with the document. Within days, the memo from Ogden’s office was being distributed inside the ATF office in Phoenix, where supervisors quickly launched Operation Fast and Furious.”
Ogden’s boss, Eric Holder, and Obama have taken the “What, me worry?” position. They saw nothing, heard nothing, ordered nothing and knew nothing. Predictably, they’re blaming underlings.
As I write this, Ken Melson, the latest of the ATF’s revolving-door acting directors, is being set up as a scapegoat and pressured to resign. But—whoops!—he’s resisting and says he’s now eager to testify on Project Gunwalker (which he would be free to do once he was no longer under Holder’s command). Since he was clearly not the top dog in the operation, his testimony could lead to major embarrassment, and perhaps even indictments, up the ladder. That remains to be seen.
In its traditional style, ATF has also—despite promises and despite warnings from Issa—started retaliating against honest agents who brought the scandal to light. Agent Vince Cefalu was given notice of termination proceedings against him after being forced to spend months on “an assignment to do nothing.” He was one of the first to come forward to complain about ATF mismanagement.
Also, just before the hearings, Congress’s usual suspects came out with a report blaming the U.S.-guns-in-Mexico problem squarely on the mythical “gun-show loophole,” demanding a new “assault weapons” ban and other restrictions, and heartily praising ATF for trying to stop the trafficking. So far, it appears that the good guys aren’t winning, despite the damning details that have been brought to light. But there is some progress. Previously, anti-gunners in government had sworn (and their pet media had repeated) that 70 or 90% (these “facts” change at will) of guns used by Mexican drug thugs came from the U.S. civilian market, mostly from licensed dealers. Sen. Grassley has now revealed that the figure is more like 8%, with a significant proportion of that being made up—irony of ironies—of the ATF’s deliberately walked guns.
So now the Feinstein-Schumer crew has crept back to blaming unlicensed, unrecorded “gun-show loophole” sales (along with a new charge that U.S. gun sales have become “a militarized bazaar”). And it may be a complete coincidence, but within weeks of the Issa hearings, Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence, resigned his post with no better explanation than “exhaustion.”
Yes, it’s definitely exhausting supporting a position that’s based on lies, myths and complicity with murder.
Many details remain hidden in bureaucratic mud. But one thing is obvious to anybody who looks: Project Gunwalker had nothing to do with stopping crime and everything to do with juicing statistics to justify more national “gun control” and more power and money for the ATF.
As I write this, the Gunwalker story is developing faster than a pustule on a politician’s privates. To learn the latest, go to Codrea (http://www.waronguns.com) and Vanderboegh’s blogs (http://www.sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com).
A lot of questions remain, and the Obama administration is doing its best to avoid giving answers. There are two that every gun-rights advocate should ask: Who ultimately authorized “walking” the guns? And why does the ATF—one of the most inept, brutal, arbitrary, perpetually mismanaged, and anti-freedom excretions of the federal government—still exist?
If followed to its logical conclusion, the Gunwalker scandal could end the careers of Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama. It could also blow the deadly, deceiving “gun control” movement off the map.
[Special thanks to Mike Vanderboegh and David Codrea, who not only brought the scandal to light, but fact-checked this article with diligence, chivalry and charm. Any errors are my own.]