Published November 30, 2011
Six months ago, several agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stood before Congress to testify about the details of a U.S. government program that armed Mexico's largest drug cartel with thousands of assault rifles.
The administration denied it at the time and questioned the agents' integrity. The men were nervous and scared. They said they feared for their careers, their reputation and their families.
"Any attempt to retaliate against them for their testimony today would be unfair, unwise and unlawful," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, warned the Department of Justice.
He and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., began an investigation to determine who authorized "Operation Fast and Furious" and aimed to hold accountable those responsible for a plan that helped known criminals run guns across the border in violation of U.S. and international law.
And while President Obama has said the operation was a mistake and that "people who screwed up will be held accountable," the record so far does not bear that out. Those in charge of the botched operation have been reassigned or promoted, their pensions intact. But many of those who blew the whistle face isolation, retaliation and transfer.
Here's what has happened to the managers of the operation:
-- Acting ATF Chief Ken Melson, who oversaw the operation, is now an adviser in the Office of Legal Affairs. He remains in ATF's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
-- Acting Deputy Director Billy Hoover, who knew his agency was walking guns and demanded an "exit strategy" just five months into the program, is now the special agent in charge of the D.C. office. He, too, did not have to relocate.
-- Deputy Director for Field Operations William McMahon received detailed briefings about the illegal operation and later admitted he shares "responsibility for mistakes that were made.” Yet, he also stays in D.C., ironically as the No. 2 man at the ATF's Office of Internal Affairs.
-- Special Agent in Charge of Phoenix Bill Newell, the man most responsible for directly overseeing Fast and Furious, was promoted to the Office of Management in Washington.
-- Phoenix Deputy Chief George Gillette was also promoted to Washington as ATF's liaison to the U.S. Marshal's Service.
-- Group Supervisor David Voth managed Fast and Furious on a day-to-day basis and repeatedly stopped field agents from interdicting weapons headed to the border, according to congressional testimony. ATF boosted Voth to chief of the ATF Tobacco Division, where he now supervises more employees in Washington than he ever did in Phoenix.
An ATF spokesman in Washington says the key players did not receive promotions, but transfers.
Special Agent Jay Dobyns, who is suing the agency for breach of contract, is skeptical.
"These guys are protected. They're insulated. They're all part of a club," Dobyns said, alleging that the ATF has a history of retaliating against its own who speak up.
"They risk everything, knowing that everything they worked for, their careers, their reputations, their finances, are all going to be ruined."
Case in point, he said, is field agent John Dodson. Dodson uprooted his family from Virginia in 2010 to join a new elite anti-gun trafficking group in Phoenix, known as Group 7. Dodson quickly witnessed what was wrong and loudly voiced his objections to Voth and Newell.
Management reassigned Dodson to weekend duty and the wire room, a relatively boring job monitoring telephone traffic and subordinate to junior agents. Soon thereafter, Dodson was temporarily assigned to another group for an additional menial assignment, until ultimately sent to an FBI Task Force, completely away from the ATF, even turning off his ATF building access pass.
Dodson continued to challenge Voth, saying the operation was killing people in Mexico and suggested it was only a matter of time before a "border agent or sheriff's deputy" would be killed by one of the guns they let go.
"If you're going to make an omelet, you've got to scramble some eggs," Voth replied, according to a congressional report.
Voth moved Dodson out of Group 7 shortly before Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was shot by weapons traced to Fast and Furious. Newell, Gillette and Voth began to cover up their tracks. According to an e-mail 24 hours after Terry was shot, Voth wrote:
"We are charging Avila (Jaime Avila bought the alleged murder weapons) with a stand-alone June 2010 firearms purchase. This way we do not divulge our current case (Fast and Furious) or the Border Patrol shooting case."
"Great job," Newell replied.
Dodson first complained internally to the ATF Office of Chief Counsel and Ethics Section, OIG, Office of Special Counsel, and Office of Professional Responsibility. They were unresponsive. Dodson was then contacted by congressional investigators, who began their own investigation.
Because of Dodson, the Terry family hopes to hear the truth about what happened to their son and the American public learned that senior Obama administration officials did nothing to stop guns from reaching an insurgency south of the border.
And what did Dodson get for telling the truth? In Phoenix he was isolated, marginalized and referred to as a "nut job," "wing-nut" and "disgruntled," according to sources.
In Washington, ATF command ordered that "Contact with Dodson was detrimental to any ATF career."
Newell's Attorney told Fox News that all of this was because "Dodson didn't want to work weekends."
Dennis Burke, the Arizona U.S. attorney who resigned in the wake of the investigation, admitted he leaked privacy-protected documents that discredited Dodson. The head of legislative affairs for the Department of Justice, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, indirectly called Dodson a liar, telling senators the ATF "never intentionally allowed guns" to walk, or to lose sight or control of the weapons.
So what happened to Dodson and the other whistleblowers?
"The only people who have been damaged from Fast and Furious, short of the obvious victims, are the people who tried to tell truth and blew the whistle," Dobyns said.
Dodson was told he was toxic and could no longer work in Phoenix. With sole custody of two teenagers and under water on his house mortgage, Dodson found himself with no place to be and nowhere to go.
A supervisor suggested he'd be treated fairly at an office in South Carolina. Wanting to keep his job, protect his pension and pay the mortgage, Dodson had no other choice. He and his family now live in a small apartment, facing financial troubles, still labeled persona non grata by the very agency he carries a badge for, and regularly assaulted by leaks from "ATF sources at headquarters."
Dodson has tried to remain out of the public eye, has not filed suit and says only that he wishes to return to his work as an ATF agent.
As for the others:
-- Agent Larry Alt took a transfer to Florida and has unresolved retaliation claims against the ATF.
-- Agent Pete Forcelli was demoted to a desk job. Forcelli is a respected investigator, with years as a detective with the New York City Police Department. He has requested an internal investigation to address the retaliation against him.
-- Agent James Casa also took a transfer to Florida.
-- Agent Carlos Canino, once the deputy attache in Mexico City, was moved to Tucson.
-- Agent Jose Wall, formerly assigned to Tijuana, was moved to Phoenix.
-- Agent Darren Gil, formerly the attache to Mexico, retired.
Sources say the agents are in a kind of purgatory. As whistleblowers, they can't be fired. The agency can try, but it would be messy. On the other hand, they can be transferred but face the problems of relocating on their own.