Fifteen months before the Fast & Furious gun scandal was unmasked in public, Homeland Security agents along the Arizona border recognized that their colleagues at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were allowing illegal guns to flow across the border to Mexican drug gangs in violation of federal policy.
The agents working for Homeland’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raised objections internally to their bosses and to their ATF colleagues in late 2009 without success, but did not escalate their concerns to superiors in Washington, according to a new Homeland Security inspector general report that uncovered yet another missed opportunity inside government to stop the bungled gun trafficking investigation.
“Most Homeland Security Investigations personnel in Arizona who received information about the investigation recognized that the task force was using a flawed methodology, which was contrary to ICE policy and practices for weapons smuggling investigations,” the inspector general concluded in a little-noticed report issued late last month.
And the special agent in charge in the case for Homeland failed to appreciate that the flawed tactics in the investigation – allowing weapons to “walk” across the border – violated ICE policies, the report added.
The Fast & Furious gun smuggling probe has become a major black eye for the Justice Department after revelations that ATF supervisors allowed more than 1,700 semiautomatic weapons between fall 2009 and early 2011 to flow through the hands of suspected straw buyers for the Mexican drug cartels without being interdicted.
As many as 500 of the weapons later showed up at violent crimes scenes on both sides of the border, including two at the scene of a December 2010 murder of U.S. border agent Brian Terry.
Numerous Justice officials have since been criticized or reprimanded for approving of the flawed strategy, and several top ATF officials lost their jobs in a scandal that angered America’s allies in Mexico and drew significant criticism inside Congress.
But while most of the focus has been on ATF and Justice officials, Homeland Security investigators for ICE were also involved in the case and briefed on the tactics as part of an interagency task force.
Memos and interviews conducted by Homeland’s inspector general found that numerous ICE agents and mid-level supervisors in Arizona recognized almost immediately back in late 2009 that ATF agents were letting guns flow across the border, failing to follow the federal policy of trying to interdict the weapons to keep them from falling into the hands of criminals.
One assistant agent in charge at ICE wrote a memo after a late November 2009 briefing with ATF that highlighted the concerns. “I think the consensus of those of us on the call was that ATF is not working vigorously enough to track the weapons and ensure the guns aren’t going south. They have 260 + guns still unaccounted,” the supervisor wrote.
His concerns were shared throughout the ICE office, the IG found. “Discontinuing surveillance of suspected straw purchasers and losing high caliber weapons is abhorrent to every HSI special agent we spoke with about the issue,” the report said. “They will not drop surveillance of suspect weapons."
Homeland agents attempted to persuade ATF to change their tactics without success, and eventually were ordered to stand down on one case when they stumbled across some of the suspected smuggled weapons.
Unable to get their bosses to intervene or to stop ATF agents, the Homeland investigators continued to stew about the tactics and the flow of weapons, but did not escalate their concerns to Washington headquarters. In fact, senior officials in Homeland in Washington, including Secretary Janet Napolitano, did not learn about the flawed tactics until March 2011, only after they were reported in the media.
Back in Arizona, the Homeland agents’ concerns finally spilled over when the border agent Terry was murdered in December 2010 and guns from Fast & Furious were found at the scene, the inspector general found.
“This is why you don’t let that many guns walk,” one senior ICE official in Arizona wrote shortly after the Terry tragedy unfolded. Other ICE officials wrote similar emails in disgust.
The inspector general raised concerns why the senior most Homeland agent in charge in the case did not see the flaws in letting the guns walk, and it urged the department to consider whether officials should be held accountable for allowing investigative tactics that violated Homeland policies.
The inspector general also recommended that Homeland’s policies be amended to make clear “that the duty to report conflicts covered by the policy overrides” any cooperation Homeland officials feel toward fellow law enforcement agencies.