Jan. 25, 2011: A cache of seized weapons used in the ATF gun-running operation 'Fast and Furious' is displayed at a news conference in Phoenix.AP
Feb. 2, 2012: Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on "Operation Fast and Furious."AP
While criticism surrounding Operation Fast and Furious has so far focused on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, three other federal agencies knew about the operation and some of their agents tried to stop it, according to the former chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Tucson.
Tony Coulson, the DEA’s agent in charge of Southern Arizona during Fast and Furious, says many federal field agents knew the ATF was walking guns to Mexico, but supervisors told them to back off when they objected.
“Clearly, we went too far,” Coulson said. “The question we had among rank and file law enforcement was, ‘When is someone going to call ATF on this, when is someone going to tell them to stop?’”
Coulson’s remarks jibe with what is already known about the operation. The DEA, the FBI and ICE, also known as Immigration Customs and Enforcement, all played roles in the investigation.
Coulson said those agencies share the blame since top officials knew, but did little to stop, the gunrunning effort. Coulson is among the first senior public officials, current or former, who admit knowing about the botched operation.
Coulson claims he raised objections to then-DEA chief Elizabeth Kempshall, but was told it was taken care of. After attending a meeting with ATF agent in charge Bill Newell, Coulson said that’s when he and other agents “knew (Fast and Furious) was not some sort of benign, pie-in-the-sky publicity stunt. Guns were actually getting in the hands of criminals.”
According to Congressional testimony and documents obtained by Fox News, the other agencies involved include:
Immigration and Customs Enforcement assigned agent Layne France to work alongside ATF in the operation. Sources say France replaced ICE senior agent Ed Hamel, who objected to the ATF ‘gunwalking’ strategy.
As a member of the Fast and Furious task force, France received copies of all ATF investigative reports, and sources say France knew the operation in detail. Congressional investigators want to know who at ICE and the Department of Homeland Security saw France’s reports, and how much he reported up the chain of command about the operation.
“I don’t think ICE can get away from the fact they were there side by side with ATF. They were not willing participants. This was something they were told to do, but they were still there,” Coulson said.
Sources say ICE agents who interdicted and seized weapons on the Mexican border got in a battle with ATF over tactics. Coulson says ICE agents stationed at Arizona ports of entry were told by supervisors to let the issue go, because ‘people above their pay grade’ had already signed off on the operation.
That version of events is supported by a document obtained Thursday by Fox News. Twice in 2009, ICE was forced to halt gun investigations because their inquiries conflicted with Operation Fast and Furious. ATF and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office told ICE “not to interfere” because Fast and Furious took priority.
Sources say ICE Director John Morton ordered an internal review of ICE involvement in Fast and Furious after the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
An ICE official said the agency could not comment on the latest claims due to an ongoing investigation. ICE officials admit they knew about Fast and Furious, but claim the agency did not know about the controversial “tactics” involved until they were reported in the media.
The Drug Enforcement Administration actually helped initiate Fast and Furious when one of its own targets, suspected drug dealer Manuel Celis Acosta, began to acquire guns for the Sinaloa Cartel. The DEA invited ATF to take over the weapons phase of that investigation.
The two agencies shared the same floor and same ‘wire room’ in Phoenix, where agents listened to suspects' conversations on court-approved wiretaps. The DEA also had initiated an investigation into the “money men” behind Fast and Furious – two cartel associates in the El Paso-Juarez area -- but deliberately did not tell the ATF. However the names of the two high-level cartel contacts were written “frequently” on call logs inside the wire room, according to a congressional memo, but ATF agents failed to notice. This information was available in January 2010, one year before Fast and Furious was finally taken down.
The FBI had also opened an investigation of the two high-level cartel associates targeted by the ATF. The FBI designated both men national security assets but didn’t alert the ATF. In exchange for one individual’s guilty plea to a minor count of “Alien in Possession of a Firearm” both men became FBI informants and are now considered ‘un-indictable,' according to a congressional review of the situation.
When the ATF learned the FBI knew, but shielded their informants, Agent Jim Needles called it “frustrating.” Attorney General Eric Holder said he would “look into” the lack of information sharing. However, sources who have attended classified briefings say the two are both are still inside the cartel and their identities cannot be compromised, suggesting the FBI will likely escape congressional scrutiny, despite their awareness of the tactics used in Fast and Furious.