Check Out The Breaking News Story In Regards To The Truth About Fast & Furious!
A Fortune investigation reveals that the ATF never
intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug
cartels. How the world came to believe just the opposite is a tale of
rivalry, murder, and political bloodlust.
By Katherine Eban
Dave Voth, Fast and Furious supervisor for the ATF
-- In the annals of impossible assignments, Dave Voth's ranked high.
In 2009 the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
promoted Voth to lead Phoenix Group VII, one of seven new ATF groups
along the Southwest border tasked with stopping guns from being
trafficked into Mexico's vicious drug war.
Some call it the
"parade of ants"; others the "river of iron." The Mexican government
has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the U.S. into
Mexico. The ATF is hobbled in its effort to stop this flow. No federal
statute outlaws firearms trafficking, so agents must build cases using a
patchwork of often toothless laws. For six years, due to Beltway
politics, the bureau has gone without permanent leadership, neutered in
its fight for funding and authority. The National Rifle Association
has so successfully opposed a comprehensive electronic database of gun
sales that the ATF's congressional appropriation explicitly prohibits
Voth, 39, was a good choice for a Sisyphean
task. Strapping and sandy-haired, the former Marine is cool-headed and
punctilious to a fault. In 2009 the ATF named him outstanding
law-enforcement employee of the year for dismantling two violent street
gangs in Minneapolis. He was the "hardest working federal agent I've
come across," says John Biederman, a sergeant with the Minneapolis
Police Department. But as Voth left to become the group supervisor of
Phoenix Group VII, a friend warned him: "You're destined to fail."
mandate was to stop gun traffickers in Arizona, the state ranked by
the gun-control advocacy group Legal Community Against Violence as
having the nation's "weakest gun violence prevention laws." Just 200
miles from Mexico, which prohibits gun sales, the Phoenix area is home
to 853 federally licensed firearms dealers. Billboards advertise volume
discounts for multiple purchases.
Customers can legally buy as
many weapons as they want in Arizona as long as they're 18 or older and
pass a criminal background check. There are no waiting periods and no
need for permits, and buyers are allowed to resell the guns. "In
Arizona," says Voth, "someone buying three guns is like someone buying a
By 2009 the Sinaloa drug cartel had made Phoenix its
gun supermarket and recruited young Americans as its designated
shoppers or straw purchasers. Voth and his agents began investigating a
group of buyers, some not even old enough to buy beer, whose members
were plunking down as much as $20,000 in cash to purchase up to 20
semiautomatics at a time, and then delivering the weapons to others.
agents faced numerous obstacles in what they dubbed the Fast and
Furious case. (They named it after the street-racing movie because the
suspects drag raced cars together.) Their greatest difficulty by far,
however, was convincing prosecutors that they had sufficient grounds to
seize guns and arrest straw purchasers. By June 2010 the agents had
sent the U.S. Attorney's office a list of 31 suspects they wanted to
arrest, with 46 pages outlining their illegal acts. But for the next
seven months prosecutors did not indict a single suspect.
14, 2010, a tragic event rewrote the narrative of the investigation.
In a remote stretch of Peck Canyon, Ariz., Mexican bandits attacked an
elite U.S. Border Patrol unit and killed an agent named Brian Terry.
The attackers fled, leaving behind two semiautomatic rifles. A trace of
the guns' serial numbers revealed that the weapons had been purchased
11 months earlier at a Phoenix-area gun store by a Fast and Furious
Ten weeks later, an ATF agent named John Dodson, whom Voth had supervised, made startling allegations on the CBS Evening News.
He charged that his supervisors had intentionally allowed American
firearms to be trafficked—a tactic known as "walking guns"—to Mexican
drug cartels. Dodson claimed that supervisors repeatedly ordered him not
to seize weapons because they wanted to track the guns into the hands
of criminal ringleaders. The program showed internal e-mails from Voth,
which purportedly revealed agents locked in a dispute over the deadly
strategy. The guns permitted to flow to criminals, the program charged,
played a role in Terry's death.
After the CBS broadcast, Fast
and Furious erupted as a major scandal for the Obama administration.
The story has become a fixture on Fox News and the subject of numerous
reports in media outlets from CNN to the New York Times. The
furor has prompted repeated congressional hearings—with U.S. Attorney
General Eric Holder testifying multiple times—dueling reports from
congressional committees, and an ongoing investigation by the Justice
Department's inspector general. It has led to the resignations of the
acting ATF chief, the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, and his chief criminal
Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.)
have pummeled the Obama administration, and especially Holder, for
more than a year. "Who authorized this program that was so felony stupid
that it got people killed?" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of
the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, demanded to
know in a hearing in June 2011. He has charged the Justice Department,
which oversees the ATF, with having "blood on their hands." Issa and
more than 100 other Republican members of Congress have demanded
The conflict has escalated dramatically in
the past ten days. On June 20, in a day of political brinkmanship,
Issa's committee voted along party lines, 23 to 17, to hold Holder in
contempt of Congress for allegedly failing to turn over certain
subpoenaed documents, which the Justice Department contended could not
be released because they related to ongoing criminal investigations.
The vote came hours after President Obama asserted executive privilege
to block the release of the documents. Holder now faces a vote by the
full House of Representatives this week on the contempt motion (though
negotiations over the documents continue). Assuming a vote occurs, it
will be the first against an attorney general in U.S. history.
political pressure has mounted, ATF and Justice Department officials
have reversed themselves. After initially supporting Group VII agents
and denying the allegations, they have since agreed that the ATF
purposefully chose not to interdict guns it lawfully could have seized.
Holder testified in December that "the use of this misguided tactic is
inexcusable, and it must never happen again."
There's the rub.
simply, there's a fundamental misconception at the heart of the Fast
and Furious scandal. Nobody disputes that suspected straw purchasers
under surveillance by the ATF repeatedly bought guns that eventually
fell into criminal hands. Issa and others charge that the ATF
intentionally allowed guns to walk as an operational tactic. But five
law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious tell Fortune
that the ATF had no such tactic. They insist they never purposefully
allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Just the opposite: They say
they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by
prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.
Indeed, a six-month Fortune
investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his
colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial
truths, and even some outright lies. Fortune reviewed more than
2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviewed 39 people,
including seven law-enforcement agents with direct knowledge of the
case. Several, including Voth, are speaking out for the first time.
Fast and Furious reached the headlines is a strange and unsettling
saga, one that reveals a lot about politics and media today. It's a
story that starts with a grudge, specifically Dodson's anger at Voth.
After the terrible murder of agent Terry, Dodson made complaints that
were then amplified, first by right-wing bloggers, then by CBS. Rep.
Issa and other politicians then seized those elements to score points
against the Obama administration, which, for its part, has capitulated
in an apparent effort to avoid a rhetorical battle over gun control in
the run-up to the presidential election. (A Justice Department
spokesperson denies this and asserts that the department is not drawing
conclusions until the inspector general's report is submitted.)
senators are whipping up the country into a psychotic frenzy with
these reports that are patently false," says Linda Wallace, a special
agent with the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit
who was assigned to the Fast and Furious team (and recently retired
from the IRS). A self-described gun-rights supporter, Wallace has not
been criticized by Issa's committee.
The ATF's accusers seem
untroubled by evidence that the policy they have pilloried didn't
actually exist. "It gets back to something basic for me," says Sen.
Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). "Terry was murdered, and guns from this
operation were found at his murder site." A spokesman for Issa denies
that politics has played a role in the congressman's actions and says
"multiple individuals across the Justice Department's component
agencies share responsibility for the failure that occurred in
Operation Fast and Furious." Issa's spokesman asserts that even if ATF
agents followed prosecutors' directives, "the practice is nonetheless
gun walking." Attorneys for Dodson declined to comment on the record.
its part, the ATF would not answer specific questions, citing ongoing
investigations. But a spokesperson for the agency provided a written
statement noting that the "ATF did not exercise proper oversight,
planning or judgment in executing this case. We at ATF have accepted
responsibility and have taken appropriate and decisive action to insure
that these errors in oversight and judgment never occur again." The
statement asserted that the "ATF has clarified its firearms transfer
policy to focus on interdiction or early intervention to prevent the
criminal acquisition, trafficking and misuse of firearms," and it cited
changes in coordination and oversight at the ATF.
when it comes to the Fast and Furious scandal. But the ultimate irony
is this: Republicans who support the National Rifle Association and its
attempts to weaken gun laws are lambasting ATF agents for not seizing enough weapons—ones that, in this case, prosecutors deemed to be legal.
The investigation begins
ATF is a bureau of judgment calls. Drug enforcement agents can
confiscate cocaine and arrest anyone in possession of it. But ATF agents
must distinguish constitutionally protected legal guns from illegal
ones, with the NRA and other Second Amendment activists watching for
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
have depicted the ATF as "jackbooted government thugs" trampling on
the rights of law-abiding gun owners. From the deadly standoff with the
Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, in 1993 to allegations that ATF
agents illegally seized weapons from suspected straw purchasers at a
Richmond gun show in 2005, these scandals have helped cement the
bureau's reputation in some quarters for law-enforcement overreach.
part because of these notorious cases, the bureau has operated in a
self-protective crouch. It has stuck to small single-defendant cases to
the detriment of its effort to combat gun trafficking, the Justice
Department's inspector general found in a review of ATF cases from 2007
to 2009. To refocus its efforts, the ATF established Group VII and the
other Southwest border units to build big, multi-defendant conspiracy
cases and target the leaders of the trafficking operations.
course, the ATF can be its own worst enemy. Voth arrived in Phoenix in
December 2009 only to discover that his group had not been funded. The
group had little equipment and no long guns, electronic devices, or
binoculars, forcing Voth to scrounge for supplies.
Then there was
Voth's seven-agent team, which was almost instantly at war with itself.
Most of the agents were transplants, unfamiliar with Arizona or one
another. Fast and Furious' lead case agent, Hope MacAllister, 41, was
the exception—a tough, squared-away Phoenix veteran with little
tolerance for complaints. Her unsmiling demeanor led Voth to give her
the ironic nickname "Sunshine Bear." She declined to be interviewed.
41, arrived one day before Voth from a two-man outpost of ATF's
Roanoke field office, where he'd worked since 2002. He had joined the
ATF from the narcotics section of the Loudoun County sheriff's office
in Virginia, where his blunt, even obnoxious manner did not earn him
friends. He's "an @!$%# sometimes—there is no other way to put it,"
says his former partner, Ken Dondero, who served as best man at
Dodson's wedding. "He's almost too honest. He believes that if he has a
thought in his head, it's there to broadcast to everyone."
MacAllister, and a third agent, Tonya English, were quintessential
by-the-book types. By contrast, Dodson and two other new arrivals,
Olindo "Lee" Casa and Lawrence Alt, seemed to chafe at ATF rules and
procedures. (An attorney for Casa says that "in light of the current
congressional investigation, as well as investigations by the
Department of Justice Inspector General and the Office of Special
Counsel" it would be premature to comment. A lawyer for Alt says Alt
could not be interviewed because he is in mediation to settle a suit he
filed in which he charges that he was retaliated against for being a
faction grew antagonistic to Voth. They regularly fired off snide
e-mails and seemed to delight in mocking Voth and his methodical
nature. They were scornful of protocol, according to ATF agents. Dodson
would show up to work in flip-flops. He came unprepared for
operations—without safety equipment or back-up plans—and was pulled off
at least one surveillance for his own safety, say two colleagues. He
earned the nickname "Renegade," and soon Voth's group effectively
divided into two clashing factions: the Sunshine Bears and the
Even had they all gotten along, they faced a nearly
impossible task. They were seven agents pursuing more than a dozen
cases, of which Fast and Furious was just one, their efforts
complicated by a lack of adequate tools. Without a real-time database
of gun sales, they had to perform a laborious archaeology. Day after
day, they visited local gun dealers and pored over forms called 4473s,
which dealers must keep on file. These contain a buyer's personal
information, a record of purchased guns and their serial numbers, and a
certification that the buyer is purchasing the guns for himself.
(Lying on the forms is a felony, but with weak penalties attached.) The
ATF agents manually entered these serial numbers into a database of
suspect guns to help them build a picture of past purchases.
January 2010 the agents had identified 20 suspects who had paid some
$350,000 in cash for more than 650 guns. According to Rep. Issa's
congressional committee, Group VII had enough evidence to make arrests
and close the case then.
Prosecutors: Transferring guns is legal in Arizona
was not the view of federal prosecutors. In a meeting on Jan. 5, 2010,
Emory Hurley, the assistant U.S. Attorney in Phoenix overseeing the
Fast and Furious case, told the agents they lacked probable cause for
arrests, according to ATF records. Hurley's judgment reflected accepted
policy at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona. "[P]urchasing
multiple long guns in Arizona is lawful," Patrick Cunningham, the U.S.
Attorney's then–criminal chief in Arizona would later write.
"Transferring them to another is lawful and even sale or barter of the
guns to another is lawful unless the United States can prove by clear
and convincing evidence that the firearm is intended to be used to
commit a crime." (Arizona federal prosecutors referred requests for
comment to the Justice Department, which declined to make officials
available. Hurley noted in an e-mail, "I am not able to comment on what I
understand to be an ongoing investigation/prosecution. I am precluded
by federal regulation, DOJ policy, the rules of professional conduct,
and court order from talking with you about this matter." Cunningham's
attorney also declined to comment.)
It was nearly impossible in
Arizona to bring a case against a straw purchaser. The federal
prosecutors there did not consider the purchase of a huge volume of
guns, or their handoff to a third party, sufficient evidence to seize
them. A buyer who certified that the guns were for himself, then handed
them off minutes later, hadn't necessarily lied and was free to change
his mind. Even if a suspect bought 10 guns that were recovered days
later at a Mexican crime scene, this didn't mean the initial purchase
had been illegal. To these prosecutors, the pattern proved little.
Instead, agents needed to link specific evidence of intent to commit a
crime to each gun they wanted to seize.
ATF agent John Dodson
of the ATF agents doubted that the Fast and Furious guns were being
purchased to commit crimes in Mexico. But that was nearly impossible to
prove to prosecutors' satisfaction. And agents could not seize guns or
arrest suspects after being directed not to do so by a prosecutor.
(Agents can be sued if they seize a weapon against prosecutors' advice.
In this case, the agents had a particularly strong obligation to
follow the prosecutors' direction given that Fast and Furious had
received a special designation under the Justice Department's Organized
Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. That designation meant more
resources for the case, but it also provided that prosecutors take the
In their Jan. 5 meeting, Hurley suggested another way
to make a case: Voth's team could wiretap the phone of a suspected
recruiter and capture proof of him directing straw purchasers to buy
guns. This would establish sufficient proof to arrest both the leaders
and the followers.
On Jan. 8, 2010, Voth and his supervisors
drafted a briefing paper in which they explained Hurley's view that
"there was minimal evidence at this time to support any type of
prosecution." The paper elaborated, "Currently our strategy is to allow
the transfer of firearms to continue to take place, albeit at a much
slower pace, in order to further the investigation and allow for the
identification of additional co-conspirators."
Issa's committee has flagged this document as proof that the agents
chose to walk guns. But prosecutors had determined, Voth says, that the
"transfer of firearms" was legal. Agents had no choice but to keep
investigating and start a wiretap as quickly as possible to gather
evidence of criminal intent.
Ten days after the meeting with
Hurley, a Saturday, Jaime Avila, a transient, admitted methamphetamine
user, bought three WASR-10 rifles at the Lone Wolf Trading Company in
Glendale, Ariz. The next day, a helpful Lone Wolf employee faxed
Avila's purchase form to ATF to flag the suspicious activity. It was
the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, so the agents didn't
receive the fax until Tuesday, according to a contemporaneous case
report. By that time, the legally purchased guns had been gone for
three days. The agents had never seen the weapons and had no chance to
seize them. But they entered the serial numbers into their gun
database. Two of these were later recovered at Brian Terry's murder
Rebuffed by the prosecutors
a logical thinker. He lived by advice he received from an early mentor
in law enforcement: "There's what you think. There's what you know.
There's what you can prove. And the first two don't count."
was not operating in a logical world. The wiretap represented the
ATF's best—perhaps only— hope of connecting the gun purchases it had
been documenting to orders from the cartels, according to Hurley. In
Minneapolis, the prosecutors Voth had worked with had approved wiretap
applications within 24 hours. But in Phoenix, days turned into weeks,
and Group VII's wiretap application languished with prosecutors in
Arizona and Washington, D.C.
No one has yet explained this delay.
Voth thinks prosecutor Hurley's inexperience in wiretapping cases may
have slowed the process. Several other agents speculate that Arizona's
gun culture may have led to indifference. Hurley is an avid gun
enthusiast, according to two law-enforcement sources
who worked with him. One of those sources says he saw Hurley behind the
counter at a gun show, helping a friend who is a weapons dealer.
Newell, then special agent in charge of the ATF's Phoenix field
division, suspected that U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, an Obama
appointee, was not being briefed adequately by deputies about the volume
of guns being purchased. He wrote to colleagues in February 2010 that
the prosecutor seemed "taken aback by some of the facts I informed him
about"—by then, the Fast and Furious suspects had purchased 800
guns—"so I am setting up a briefing for him (alone no USAO 'posse')
about this case and several other cases I feel he is being misled
The conflict between federal prosecutors and ATF agents
had been growing for years. Pete Forcelli, who served as group
supervisor of ATF's Phoenix I field division for five years, told
Congress in June 2011 that he believed Arizona federal prosecutors made
up excuses to decline cases. "Despite the existence [of] probable
cause in many cases," he testified, "there were no indictments, no
prosecutions, and criminals were allowed to walk free." Prosecutors in
Los Angeles and New York were far more aggressive in pursuing gun
cases, Forcelli asserted.
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ATF agents became so frustrated by prosecutors' intransigence that, in
a highly unusual move, they began bringing big cases to the state
attorney general's office instead. Terry Goddard, Arizona's Attorney
General from 2003 to 2011, says of federal prosecutors, "They demanded
that every i be dotted, every t be crossed, and after a while, it got to be nonsensical."
prosecutors, straw-purchasing cases were hard to prove and unrewarding
to prosecute, with minimal penalties attached. In December 2010, five
U.S. Attorneys along the Southwest border, including Burke in Arizona,
wrote to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, asking that penalties for
straw purchasing be increased. The commission did increase the
recommended jail time by a few months. But because the straw purchasers,
by definition, have no criminal record and there is no
firearms-trafficking statute that would allow prosecutors to charge them
with conspiracy as a group, the penalties remain low.
repeatedly rebuffed Voth's requests. After examining one suspect's
garbage, agents learned he was on food stamps yet had plunked down more
than $300,000 for 476 firearms in six months. Voth asked if the ATF
could arrest him for fraudulently accepting public assistance when he
was spending such huge sums. Prosecutor Hurley said no. In another
instance, a young jobless suspect paid more than $10,000 for a
50-caliber tripod-mounted sniper rifle. According to Voth, Hurley told
the agents they lacked proof that he hadn't bought the gun for himself.
grew deeply frustrated. In August 2010, after the ATF in Texas
confiscated 80 guns—63 of them purchased in Arizona by the Fast and
Furious suspects— Voth got an e-mail from a colleague there: "Are you
all planning to stop some of these guys any time soon? That's a lot of
guns…Are you just letting these guns walk?"
Voth responded with
barely suppressed rage: "Have I offended you in some way? Because I am
very offended by your e-mail. Define walk? Without Probable Cause and
concurrence from the USAO [U.S. Attorney's Office] it is highway
robbery if we take someone's property." He then recounted the situation
with the unemployed suspect who had bought the sniper rifle. "We
conducted a field interview and after calling the AUSA [assistant U.S.
Attorney] he said we did not have sufficient PC [probable cause] to
take the firearm so our suspect drove home with said firearm in his
car…any ideas on how we could not let that firearm 'walk'"?
believed the wiretap could help bring the case to a swift and
successful close. On March 5, 2010, ten days before their first wiretap
was set to begin, Voth was in Washington, D.C., to brief ATF brass and
Justice Department officials on Fast and Furious. The response was
overwhelmingly positive. A senior ATF attorney wrote Voth, "This is
exactly the types of cases ATF should be doing with a wire, it is
The schism inside Phoenix Group VII
returned to Phoenix fully expecting his team to unite for the work
that lay ahead. But instead he found a minor mutiny—over the schedule
for the wire, which needed to be monitored around the clock. Dodson
didn't want to work weekends. Casa felt his seniority should exclude
him from the effort.
Agents were getting pulled from other field
offices to assist, and on March 11, one wrote to ask Voth, "You're not
going to give the out-of-towners the crappy shifts, are you?" Voth
responded, "I am attempting to split the weekends so everyone has to
work one of the two days that way no one gets screwed too hard and
everybody gets screwed a little bit."
The next day, March 12,
Voth sent out the wire schedule at 5:15 p.m. but got such a blizzard of
complaints about the shifts that, two hours later, he sent another
e-mail to the group. It read in part: "[T]here may be a schism
developing amongst the group. This is the time we all need to pull
together not drift apart. We are all entitled to our respective (albeit
different) opinions however we all need to get along and realize we
have a mission to accomplish. I am thrilled and proud that our Group is
the first ATF Southwest Border Group in the country to be going up on
[a] wire…I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty
arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior…I don't know what all the
issues are but we are all adults, we are all professionals, and we have
an exciting opportunity to use the biggest tool in our law enforcement
tool box. If you don't think this is fun you're in the wrong line of
work—period! This is the pinnacle of domestic U.S. law-enforcement techniques. After this the tool box is empty."
wire turned out to be short lived. Within days, the agents realized
that their suspect was phasing out use of the phone they were
monitoring. Group VII would have to reapply, all over again, for
permission to tap the new phone number.
But Voth's so-called
"schism e-mail" would live in infamy. Today it is held up as proof that
the group was desperately divided over the tactic of gun walking and
that Voth belittled those who opposed it. But there is no documentary
evidence that agents Dodson, Casa, or Alt complained to their
supervisors about the alleged gun walking, had confrontations about it,
or were retaliated against because of their complaints, as they all
Who's opposed to gun walking?
atmosphere inside Voth's group had become toxic. The subjects of
dispute were often trivial. For example, when Voth asked Casa to turn
off his computer's Godzilla sound effect, which roared each time he got
an e-mail, Casa replied, "I have done some limited research and have
found no ATF order or internal division memo addressing this issue."
remained even-tempered but did take a stand after one incident. Alt
taped to Voth's door an eight-point takedown of agent MacAllister,
sarcastically stating that she was in charge of everything. Voth
reported the note to an ATF attorney, and Alt apologized. It's unclear
what drove the men's anger, but it seems unlikely that it was caused
by disagreements over alleged gun walking.
is it possible to deduce that? Because Dodson then proceeded to walk
guns intentionally, with Casa and Alt's help. On April 13, 2010, one
month after Voth wrote his schism e-mail, Dodson opened a case into a
suspected gun trafficker named Isaiah Fernandez. He had gotten Casa to
approve the case when Voth was on leave. Dodson had directed a
cooperating straw purchaser to give three guns to Fernandez and had
taped their conversations without a prosecutor's approval.
first learned these details a month into the case. He demanded that
Dodson meet with him and get approval from prosecutors to tape
conversations. Five days later, Dodson sent an uncharacteristically
diplomatic response. (He and Alt had revised repeated drafts in that
time, with Alt pushing to make the reply "less abrasive." Dodson
e-mailed back: "Less abrasive? I felt sick from kissing all that ass as
it was.") Dodson wrote that he succeeded in posing undercover as a
straw purchaser and claimed that prosecutor Hurley—who he had just
belatedly contacted—had raised "new concerns." The prosecutor had told
Dodson that an assistant U.S. Attorney "won't be able to approve of
letting firearms 'walk' in furtherance of your investigation without
first briefing the U.S. Attorney and Criminal Chief."
It was the
first time Voth learned that Dodson intended to walk guns. Voth says he
refused to approve the plan and instead consulted his supervisor, who
asked for a proposal from Dodson in writing. Dodson then drafted one,
which Voth forwarded to his supervisor, who approved it on May 28.
June 1, Dodson used $2,500 in ATF funds to purchase six AK Draco
pistols from local gun dealers, and gave these to Fernandez, who
reimbursed him and gave him $700 for his efforts. Two days later,
according to case records, Dodson—who would later testify that in his
previous experience, "if even one [gun] got away from us, nobody went
home until we found it"—left on a scheduled vacation without
interdicting the guns. That day, Voth wrote to remind him that money
collected as evidence needed to be vouchered within five days. Dodson
e-mailed back, his sarcasm fully restored: "Do the orders define a
'day'? Is it; a calendar day? A business day or work day….? An Earth day
(because a day on Venus takes 243 Earth days which would mean that I
have plenty of time)?"
The guns were never recovered, the case was
later closed, and Fernandez was never charged. By any definition, it
was gun walking of the most egregious sort: a government agent using
taxpayer money to deliver guns to bad guys and then failing to
Feb. 4, 2011, the Justice Department sent a letter to Sen. Grassley
saying that the allegations of gun walking in Fast and Furious were
false and that ATF always tried to interdict weapons. A month later,
Grassley countered with what appeared to be slam-dunk proof that ATF
had indeed walked guns. "[P]lease explain how the denials in the
Justice Department's Feb. 4, 2011 letter to me can be squared with the
evidence," Grassley wrote, attaching damning case reports that he
contended "proved that ATF allowed guns to 'walk.'" The case and agent
names were redacted, but the reports were not from Fast and Furious.
They came entirely from Dodson's Fernandez case.
An unusual alliance
the end of July 2010, the Fast and Furious investigation was largely
complete. The agents had sent prosecutors 20 names for immediate
indictment, Jaime Avila's among them. His purchase of the three
WASR-10s were listed among his criminal acts. On Aug. 17, 2010, ATF
agents met in Phoenix with prosecutors, including U.S. Attorney Dennis
Burke. According to two people present, the ATF presented detailed
evidence, including the fact that their suspects had purchased almost
2,000 guns, and pushed for indictments. A month later, on Sept. 17, an
ATF team—this time including ATF director Kenneth Melson—met with
prosecutors again and again pushed for action. The sides agreed to aim
for indictments by October, according to one person in attendance.
as weeks and then months passed, prosecutors did not issue
indictments. The ATF agents grew increasingly concerned. By December,
prosecutors had dropped Avila's name from the indictment list for what
they deemed a lack of evidence.
Only when Terry, the U.S. Border
Patrol agent, was murdered in December 2010 did the prosecutors act.
Voth's agents arrested Avila within 24 hours of Terry's death. On Jan.
19, 2011, a federal grand jury indicted him and 19 other suspects.
(Avila has since pleaded guilty to dealing guns without a license).
a crucial part of the Fast and Furious scandal—an unusual alliance
that would prod politicians and spread word of the failure to stop guns
from making their way to Mexican drug cartels—was waiting in the
wings. Little more than a week after Terry's murder, a small item about
the possible connection between his death and the Fast and Furious
case appeared on a website, CleanUpATF.org. The site was the work of a
disgruntled ATF agent-turned-whistleblower, Vince Cefalu, who is suing
the bureau for alleged mistreatment in an unrelated case. His website
has served as a clearinghouse for grievances and a magnet for other ATF
It had also attracted gun-rights activists
loosely organized around a blog called the Sipsey Street Irregulars,
run by a former militia member, Mike Vanderboegh, who has advocated
armed insurrection against the U.S. government. It was an incendiary
combination: the disgruntled ATF agents wanted to
punish and reform the bureau; the gun-rights activists wanted to
disable it. After the item about Terry appeared, the bloggers funneled
the allegations through a "desert telegraph" of sorts to Republican
lawmakers, who began asking questions.
A week after the initial
Fast and Furious press conference in January 2011, Dodson dropped a
small bombshell. He told a supervisor that he had been contacted by
congressional staff. Dodson met that day with two ATF supervisors.
According to their written contemporaneous accounts, Dodson was vague
but claimed that Voth had always "treated him like @!$%#" and that it
"felt good" to speak with someone outside ATF.
Dodson appeared on the CBS Evening News
a week later. As Voth watched the program from his living room, he
says, he wanted to vomit. He saw sentences from his "schism" e-mail
reproduced on the TV screen. But CBS didn't quote the portions of
Voth's e-mail that described how the group was divided by "petty
arguing" and "adolescent behavior." Instead, CBS claimed the schism had
been caused by opposition to gun walking (such alleged opposition is
not discussed anywhere in the e-mail, which is below). CBS asserted
that Dodson and others had protested the tactic "over and over," and
then quoted portions of Voth's e-mail in a way that left the impression
that gun walking was endorsed at headquarters. CBS contacted the ATF
(but not Voth directly). The result was a report that incorrectly
painted Voth as zealously promoting gun walking. (A CBS spokeswoman,
Sonya McNair, says CBS does not publicly discuss its editorial process
but notes, "The White House has already acknowledged the truth of our
The "Witch Hunt"
than 36 hours after the CBS report, Voth was jolted awake at dawn by
the blaring of his burglar alarm. With his wife and children still in
bed, he crept down the stairs of his desert home, his ATF-issued .40
caliber Sig Sauer extended before him. In the garage, he saw a door
ajar and a massive kettle bell he used for workouts knocked from its
place. Outside, the fleeing intruder had left behind a partial
footprint in the sand.
As Voth waited for the police, he checked
his e-mail and found an anonymous threat, sent minutes earlier: "You
God-damned stupid 'Yes-Man' who does not have either the morals, or the
intelligence, to realize that allowing this 'Fast and Furious'
operation would result in unnecessary, unjustified deaths: MAY YOU EAT
@!$%# AND DIE." Later his wife found a strange car outside their house
and an angry post on the Internet listing their home address. Voth
confidentially shared his concern about that post in a meeting with two senior ATF officials, only to find an account of the meeting on the Sipsey Street blog within 24 hours.
ATF's office of operations security investigated the threats to Voth. A
confidential report on March 29, 2011, concluded, "ATF 'insiders' are
the number one threat to GS Voth and his family." The report cited "at
least six individuals," whom it did not name, who had "personal agendas
to undermine the credibility of ATF supervisors and members of
management as retribution for [Voth's] operational shortcomings." The
report cited the two blogs and concluded that "the malicious intent of
insiders" had led directly to Voth's becoming the target of a
Politicians soon got involved, and the situation grew worse for the ATF. In
June, Republican staffers for the House Oversight and Government
Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee released a joint
report that leaned heavily on interviews with Dodson, Casa, and Alt and
identified Voth as a central figure in the scandal. It quoted Dodson
describing Voth as "giddy" over the slaughter in Mexico—Voth says he was
deeply upset by the violence—but didn't reflect Voth's perspective.
The report was released two weeks before Voth was scheduled to be
questioned for the first time by congressional investigators. (A
spokesman for Issa says the committee attempted to interview Voth
As the allegations mounted, pressure intensified. In
early July the ATF's once supportive acting director, Melson—who
according to e-mails had been briefed weekly on the case—went to
Congress and threw his own people under the bus. Melson told Grassley
that he had read the case reports only after the scandal broke, and had
been "sick to his stomach," according to press accounts of the
meeting. In August, Melson resigned, as did Arizona's U.S. Attorney,
Burke. (Melson's lawyer, Richard Cullen, says the Justice Department's
inspector general will likely answer many of the continuing questions.)
In December 2011, the Justice Department retracted its Feb. 4 letter,
in which it had denied walking guns in the Fast and Furious case.
Voth, steeped in military loyalty, Melson's betrayal was the blow he
couldn't fathom. Voth began losing weight, losing sleep. As he puts it,
"You barely remember your own name, your mind is going 100 miles an
hour." He no longer knew what to do or who could be trusted. "There
would be no way," he says, "to foreshadow this."
the scandal erupted, almost everyone associated with Fast and Furious
has been reassigned. Dodson, Casa, and Alt have been transferred to
other field offices. Voth, who has now been interviewed by
congressional investigators and the Justice Department's inspector
general, has been reassigned to a desk job in Washington.
facts are still coming to light—and will likely continue to do so with
the Justice Department inspector general's report expected in coming
months. Among the discoveries: Fast and Furious' top suspects—Sinaloa
Cartel operatives and Mexican nationals who were providing the money,
ordering the guns, and directing the recruitment of the straw
purchasers—turned out to be FBI informants who were receiving money
from the bureau. That came as news to the ATF agents in Group VII.
with Attorney General Holder now squarely in the cross hairs of
Congress, Democrats and Republicans are accusing each other of
political machinations. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and
ranking member of the oversight committee, has accused Issa of targeting
Holder as part of an "election-year witch hunt." Issa has alleged on
Fox News that Fast and Furious is part of a liberal conspiracy to
restrict gun rights: "Very clearly, [the ATF] made a crisis and they are
using this crisis to somehow take away or limit people's Second
Amendment rights." (Issa has a personal history on this issue: In 1972,
at age 19, he was arrested for having a concealed, loaded .25-caliber
automatic in his car; he ultimately pleaded guilty to possession of an
Issa's claim that the ATF is using the Fast and
Furious scandal to limit gun rights seems, to put it charitably,
far-fetched. Meanwhile, Issa and other lawmakers say they want ATF to
stanch the deadly tide of guns, widely implicated in the killing of
47,000 Mexicans in the drug-war violence of the past five years. But
the public bludgeoning of the ATF has had the opposite effect. From
2010, when Congress began investigating, to 2011, gun seizures by Group
VII and the ATF's three other groups in Phoenix dropped by more than
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