About Time! Review Board Recommends Firings Over Operation Fast & Furious

COMMENTARY Crime and Justice

About Time! Review Board Recommends Firings Over Operation Fast & Furious

Dec 8th, 2012 3 min read
John Malcolm

Vice President, Institute for Constitutional Government

John is vice president for the Institute for Constitutional Government and director of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

The Professional Review Board of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has reportedly recommended firing four managers — William Newell, Mark Chait, William McMahon, and George Gillett — and disciplining two lower-level employees — David Voth and Hope MacAllister — for their roles in Operation Fast and Furious. The panel’s recommendations will now be reviewed by high-level ATF managers.

Operation Fast and Furious was the botched law-enforcement initiative in which agents allowed approximately 2,000 high-powered weapons obtained by “straw purchasers” (individuals who purchased them illegally for someone else) to “walk” into Mexico. It was an ill-conceived attempt to develop criminal firearms cases against higher-ups within the vicious Sinaloa drug cartel.

Most of these guns remain unrecovered. Two, however, were linked to the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. Others were used to kill or wound approximately 300 Mexicans, according to former Mexican attorney general Victor Humberto Benítez Treviño. As reported by Univision, Fast and Furious guns were involved in a September 2009 shootout that left 18 dead at a drug rehabilitation center in Ciudad Jaurez. Fast and Furious guns were also used in a January 2012 ambush at a birthday party, in which 16 teenagers were killed.

As special agent in charge (SAC) of the Phoenix Field Division, Newell oversaw all ATF operations in Arizona and New Mexico. He is the person who conceived and implemented the strategy behind Operation Fast and Furious and its equally-foolhardy predecessor Operation Wide Receiver. Although there is plenty of blame to go around, he is the person who is most responsible for over 2,000 weapons (including 410 from Wide Receiver) being handed over to criminals in Mexico.

Gillett, the assistant SAC in the Phoenix office, reported to Newell. He was fully aware of the failed tactics used in Operation Wide Receiver and worked closely with Newell in devising and implementing Operation Fast and Furious, including the decision not to interview or arrest any of the “straw purchasers.”

McMahon, the Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations, was Newell’s supervisor at ATF headquarters. He received a plethora of information about the operation but didn’t see it as his job to ask even the most rudimentary questions about what was going on in the field and what steps Newell was taking to interdict the weapons or to slow the rate of those purchases. As the DOJ inspector general noted in his 471-page report, McMahon “failed to exercise any meaningful oversight of Newell’s activities in Operation Fast and Furious.”

Chait, the assistant director for field operations, was McMahon’s supervisor. He received weekly updates on Fast and Furious and had several opportunities to put an end to the operation, but did nothing. Opting to stick his head in the sand, Chait merely forwarded important recommendations (such as applications for wiretaps) from the field and let people above him (who wrongfully assumed that he and McMahon had reviewed the material and concurred in those recommendations) make the decisions. Chait requested an “exit strategy” in March 2010, but didn’t lift a finger to see to it that he received one or that it be implemented, nor did he suggest any safeguards to prevent gun walking.

The Review Board is recommending that MacAllister, the lead case agent in the investigation, be reprimanded and transferred to another field office. The inspector general faulted MacAllister for making poor tactical judgments about how to conduct the investigation and for failing to reassess the investigative approach as the case progressed.

The Board also recommends that Voth, MacAllister’s supervisor, be demoted. As the first-level manager overseeing the investigation, Voth was actively involved in implementing and reaffirming its goals and tactics. Moreover, it was Voth who rejected complaints from ATF agents (particularly Olinda Casa and whistleblower John Dodson) about the operation. He dismissed their concerns as “petty arguing” and characterized the needlessly risky and dangerous tactics that ATF was using as “the pinnacle of domestic law enforcement techniques.”

Operation Fast and Furious continues to stain the reputation of the Department of Justice in general and ATF in particular. And more shoes are likely to drop. The inspector general’s report announces plans “to issue a separate report on at least one other ATF investigation that involves an individual suspected of transporting grenade components into Mexico, converting them into live grenades, and then supplying them to drug cartels.”

It is high time that ATF begin the process of purging this taint by taking appropriate disciplinary action. One can only wonder: What took them so long?

— John G. Malcolm is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."