WASHINGTON – Democrats on a congressional committee say the panel has obtained no evidence that a flawed gun smuggling probe called Operation Fast and Furious was conceived or directed by high-level political appointees at Justice Department headquarters.
The probe, say the Democrats, grew out of a misguided five-year-long effort during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations in the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to dismantle arms trafficking networks along the Southwest border.
"Operation Fast and Furious was the latest in a series of fatally flawed operations run by ATF agents in Phoenix and the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office," says the report from Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
It follows a yearlong inquiry and is expected to differ sharply with the conclusions of Republicans, who will question Attorney General Eric Holder about Operation Fast and Furious at a hearing Thursday before the committee.
Starting six years ago, according to the Democrats' report, ATF agents in Phoenix devised a strategy to forgo arrests against low-level straw purchasers while they attempted to build bigger cases against higher-level traffickers, a risky tactic known as gun-walking.
Rather than halting operations after flaws became evident, the ATF's Phoenix division "launched several similarly reckless operations over the course of several years, also with tragic results," said the report. "Each investigation involved various incarnations of the same activity: Agents were contemporaneously aware of illegal firearms purchases, they did not typically interdict weapons or arrest straw purchasers, and firearms ended up in the hands of criminals on both sides of the border."
Operation Fast and Furious was the fourth such ATF gun-walking probe, according to the Democrats' report, which was based on documents collected by the committee.
"In Operation Fast and Furious, ATF agents in Phoenix utilized gun-walking tactics that were similar to previous operations," Democrats concluded.
During the operation, federal agents lost track of many guns linked to it. Two of the guns purchased at a Phoenix gun store were recovered from the scene of a shooting that killed border agent Brian Terry on the U.S. side of the border.