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Posted Jun 16, 2011, 1:11 am
WASHINGTON - Agents from the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified Wednesday that the risky Operation Fast and Furious program was a "disaster."
ATF 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.
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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 the one 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.
Although two weapons recovered near the shooting scene were linked to the Fast and Furious operation, ATF says neither of the firearms found fired the fatal shots.
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Illegal alien charged in Terry killing
A Mexican national was indicted last month in the killing of Terry.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes of El Fuerte, Mexico, was named in a 14-count indictment in May. He faces second-degree murder, weapons and conspiracy charges. Osorio-Arellanes is not accused of firing the shot that killed Terry.
The indictment alleged that Osorio-Arellanes, also known as "Paye," was part of an armed group of illegal aliens that got into a firefight with Terry and three other Border Patrol agents in a remote area known as Mesquite Seep near Rio Rico.
Terry, 40, a former Marine and Michigan police officer, was a member of the Border Patrol's BORTAC special response team that tracks bandits preying on migrants and drug runners near Nogales.
On the evening of Dec. 14, Terry and three other agents were patrolling in Peck Canyon, about 10 miles north of Nogales, when they encountered a group of armed men who began firing assault rifles.
Osorio-Arellanes and another man carried Romanian GP WASR 10/63 assault rifles, a variant of the AK-47, the indictment said.
One of the group shot Agent Terry, who died from his wound, the indictment said.
Osorio-Arellanes, who was wounded, was apprehended, treated for his injuries, and was been in federal custody on felony immigration charges until he was indicted. His co-conspirators, including the gunman suspected of firing the fatal shot, fled the scene, the indictment said.
In addition to the charge of second-degree murder, which could result in a life sentence, Osorio-Arellanes was indicted on charges of conspiracy to assault a federal officer, use and carrying a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, and re-entry after deportation.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.