Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry was such a well-organized ex-Marine that even after he was gunned down Dec. 15 outside Rio Rico, Ariz., gifts he had mailed to his family in Michigan arrived in time for Christmas.
Complicating his death in the line of duty is the fact that two guns found at the murder scene were purchased by suspects as part of a controversial federal gun-running investigation that purposely allowed guns to “walk” into the hands of suspected drug traffickers.
Terry was killed by an AK-47 variant similar to the guns recovered, but the murder weapon has not been found. However, a separate weapon that was initially purchased on the same day as the other two matches the forensic profile of the murder weapon.
Testimony from Terry’s family about the Christmas gifts and other details was the most emotional part of a hearing Wednesday that is part of an ongoing House Oversight Committee investigation of the so-called Fast and Furious operation that knowingly let illegally purchased firearms go.The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hoped that the guns would eventually lead agents to bigger cases against kingpins in Mexican drug cartels.
“Brian did ultimately come home that Christmas; we buried him not far from the house that he was raised in just prior to Christmas day,” Terry’s cousin told the hearing, flanked by the slain agent’s mother and sister. “We ask that if a government official made a wrong decision that they admit their error and take responsibility for his or her actions.”
As part of the Fast and Furious initiative, ATF agents were instructed to monitor illegal gun purchases, or “straw” purchases in which a legal buyer hands the guns directly over to a recipient prohibited from owning a firearm.
Special Agent John Dodson, who testified at the hearing, first told iWatch News about his concerns with operation Fast and Furious in early May, saying the guns that the bureau let go “are going to be turning up in crimes on both sides of the border for decades.” On Wednesday, he said that during the operation “ATF failed to fulfill one of our most fundamental obligations, to caretake the public trust, in part, to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”
Dodson and other agents who testified outlined concerns that they were not allowed to follow the guns long enough after they were bought to successfully build a strong case, nor were they allowed to make arrests or seize the guns while they could.
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, who has been probing the Fast and Furious operation, told the House panel that any attempt by ATF to retaliate against Dodson and the other agents who spoke would be “unfair, unwise and unlawful.”
The senator and another Republican, Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said the operation was “reckless” and produced a “tragic” outcome. Earlier this week, Issa and Grassley jointly released the first in a series of reports focusing primarily on Terry’s death and the complaints of the agents who testified at Wednesday’s hearing.
Issa’s committee has been frustrated by the Justice Department’s response to his demands for documents related to Fast and Furious. At one point, Issa brandished a largely redacted document at a Justice Department witness, asking, “How dare you make an opening statement of cooperation?”
That witness, Ronald Weich, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, testified that although his office intended to cooperate, he was concerned about a May 4 incident in which Congressional staff separately obtained and released documents that had been sealed by a judge.
While Republicans have focused on Fast and Furious, three Democrats in the Senate this week called on Congress to beef up gun laws to try to curb the violence.
“Congress has been virtually moribund while powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations continue to gain unfettered access to military-style firearms coming from the United States,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said in a statement.
Joined by Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Feinstein called on Congress to restore the ban on assault weapons passed during the Clinton administration but which expired in 2004. The senators also suggested President Obama use his executive powers to classify assault weapons as “non-sporting weapons,” making them illegal under existing law.
The trio also called for closing a loophole that allows weapons sold at gun shows to escape background checks, to require multiple sales of long guns to be reported to the ATF and to expand the program to trace guns in Mexico.
One ATF agent complained at the Wednesday hearing that “toothless” U.S. gun laws contribute to problems agents face in making cases against straw buyers and their eventual customers across the Mexican border, an issue iWatch News has previously covered.
Approximately 200 of the 2,000 firearms bought by Fast and Furious suspects were later recovered at crime scenes in Mexico. But those 200 guns bought over 15 months are dwarfed by the number of firearms that cross the border each year, according to new ATF statistics.
At least 20,584 guns recovered from Mexican crime scenes in 2009 and 2010 could be traced to the United States, the ATF recently reported. So at a minimum, an average of 850 guns are crossing the border each month.
The flow of guns into the hands of drug cartels has fueled an explosion of violence. Since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in December 2006, more than 34,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.
iWatch News staff writer David Heath also contributed to this story