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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Firearms from ATF sting linked to 11 more violent crimes

02:38 |

Firearms from the ATF's Fast and Furious weapons-trafficking investigation turned up at the scenes of at least 11 violent crimes in the U.S. as well as at a U.S. Border Patrol agent's slaying in southern Arizona last year, the Justice Department has acknowledged to Congress.

Justice did not provide any details about those crimes. But The Times has learned that they occurred in several Arizona cities, including Phoenix, where Operation Fast and Furious was managed, as well as in El Paso, Texas, where a total of 42 Fast and Furious weapons were seized at two separate crime scenes.

The new numbers, which vastly expand the scope of the danger the program posed to U.S. citizens over a 14-month period, are contained in a letter that Justice Department officials turned over to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

DOCUMENTS: Fast and Furious paper trail

In the letter, obtained by The Times on Tuesday, Justice officials also reported that ATF officials advised them that the ATF's acting director, Kenneth Melson, "likely became aware" of Fast and Furious as early as December 2009, a month after the program began.

Melson has said he did not learn about how the program was run until January of this year, when it was canceled.

The July 22 letter, signed by Assistant Atty. Gen. Ronald Weich, was sent to Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was in response to questions posed to the Justice Department about Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Fast and Furious.

The program was intended to identify Mexican drug cartel leaders and smuggling routes across the border by allowing illegal purchases of firearms and then tracking the weapons. Instead, many of the guns simply vanished.

Weich said that although the "ATF does not have complete information" on all the lost guns, "it is our understanding that ATF is aware of 11 instances" beyond the Border Patrol agent's killing where a Fast and Furious firearm "was recovered in connection with a crime of violence in the United States."

Justice officials did not provide any more details about those crimes or how many guns were found.

But a source close to the unfolding controversy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation, said that as early as January 2010, just after the operation began, Fast and Furious weapons had turned up at crime scenes in Phoenix, Nogales, Douglas and Glendale in Arizona, and in El Paso. The largest haul was 40 Fast and Furious weapons at one crime scene in El Paso.

In all, 57 Fast and Furious weapons were recovered at those six U.S. crime scenes, in addition to the two seized where Agent Brian Terry was killed.

Weich's letter also said a total of 1,418 firearms were circulated under Fast and Furious. How many remain missing in the U.S. and Mexico is unclear. That total is considerably lower than earlier estimates: In the past, authorities have estimated that at least 2,000 guns had vanished.

Melson has told congressional investigators that he learned how the program was operated in the field only after it was shut down last January.

But Weich wrote that the ATF has advised Justice officials that Melson "likely became aware on or about Dec. 9, 2009, as part of a briefing following a seizure of weapons in Douglas, Ariz."

Weich added that the ATF told Justice that although Melson was not given "regular" briefings on Fast and Furious, "periodic updates were provided to the acting director as determined to be necessary by the [ATF] Office of Field Operations. These briefings typically coincided with planned field visits or in preparation for meetings."

Weich added that Holder first spoke to Melson about Fast and Furious "in or about late April" of this year, after the attorney general first learned of the program and during a regular briefing.

Senior Justice officials have insisted they did not know about the "operational tactics" of the program, and the Weich letter reemphasized that point. Weich noted that the officials are cooperating with investigations by Congress and the Justice Department Inspector General's Office, which reflects "our commitment to learning the facts underlying this matter


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