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ATF agents, family blast gun-trafficking investigation that let guns “walk away”

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WASHINGTON _ Agents from the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) testified Wednesday that the risky Operation Fast and Furious program was a “disaster.”

Special agents John Dodson, Olindo “Lee” Casa and Peter Forcelli, all told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that agents in Phoenix were instructed to follow a dangerous strategy that let suspects walk away with weapons, in the hope that a larger gun-trafficking network would reveal itself.

Instead, at least one of those “walked” guns was found at the scene of the December slaying of Brian Terry, a border patrol agent, who was shot and killed 18 miles inside the Arizona border, at Rio Rico. When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, was shot during a political event in January, “There was a state of panic, like oh, God, let’s hope this is not a weapon from that case,” Forcelli testified.

In all, 2,000 guns — including AK-47s and .50-caliber rifles — and 10,000 or more rounds of ammunition are estimated to have “walked” into the hands of Mexican drug lords, said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee chairman, in his opening statement.

The ATF was created as “a unique law enforcement agency that Americans could trust to reduce the illegal transfer of guns into the hands of criminals,” said Issa. “Today’s hearing concerns a breach of that trust that has left countless innocent Mexican citizens and at least one federal border patrol agent dead.”

The three agents — who are still employed by the ATF — said they did not understand how the operation could ever possibly be successful.

In his written testimony, Forcelli described the Fast and Furious techniques are “delusional.” Casa said he had never heard of letting guns walk until he got to Phoenix, and Forcelli estimated the guns ended up in Mexico twice as often as they stayed in the United States.

The only technology the bureau had to track guns were serial numbers and cooperation of gun dealers in Phoenix. No GPS tracking was available from the bureau.

Forcelli even tried unsuccessfully to make his own GPS tracking bug for guns by rigging up gadgets bought at Radio Shack, he told the committee.

Casa said he was told by supervisors to stand down in several cases when he would have otherwise made an arrest in an illegal gun deal. Any questions about the operation were dismissed by supervisors, and agents asking the questions were told they did not understand the strategy, said all three men.

“Someone needs to step up and say, ‘We made a mistake,’” Forcelli said.

He said he is proud of his work in the bureau, but wanted the truth revealed in this case, and for those responsible in leadership positions to be held accountable.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., called the findings about the ATF “bitterly disappointing.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said that any retaliation against the agents because of their testimony would be “unfair, unwise, and unlawful.”

“This investigation is not about politics, it’s about getting the facts,” said Grassley, the first witness to testify Wednesday. “There will be plenty of time for both sides to argue policy implication for all this at some point…. Today is all about these agents not being able to do their job.”

Family members of Terry, the border patrol agent, also testified before the committee Wednesday. His mother, Josephine Terry, was asked what she would want to say to those responsible if a “walked” gun was used to kill her son. It was what a committee report called “likely a preventable tragedy.”

“I do not know what I would say to them, but I’d want to know what they would say to me,” she said.