WASHINGTON — A high-ranking official apologized Tuesday for mistakes made in a botched Arizona gun-trafficking operation.
At a congressional hearing, lawmakers grilled federal agents about why they allowed more than 2,000 guns to hit the streets in Mexico and the United States.
Deputy assistant director William McMahon, who oversees the western region of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the ATF made mistakes in losing control of so many firearms during Operation Fast and Furious, which was intended to disrupt a Mexican drug trafficking network.
"However good our intentions, regardless of our resource challenges, and notwithstanding the difficult legal hurdles we face in fighting firearms traffickers, we made mistakes," McMahon told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "And for that I apologize."
The packed hearing was the second held by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who, along with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is investigating allegations that ATF agents allowed 2,020 high-powered weapons, including AK-47s and .50-caliber sniper rifles, to "walk" to Mexico.
Fast and Furious, which began in Phoenix in November 2009 and ran until early 2011, was an effort by ATF officials to implement a Justice Department strategy that focused on identifying and investigating Mexican drug cartel networks, rather than just arresting individual illegal gun buyers, ATF officials testified Tuesday.
Concerns about the program erupted after guns linked to Fast and Furious straw buyers were found at the scene in Mexico where a Border Patrol agent was killed in December 2010.
Under the plan, agents followed, watched and documented straw purchasers who bought guns from Phoenix-area stores to see where the guns would end up. One suspected trafficker illegally bought nearly 700 firearms during the operation. The agents also listened to a wiretap to try to gather intelligence about how the drug traffickers smuggled firearms into Mexico.
The most contentious questioning by lawmakers was of Bill Newell, a former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division who oversaw Fast and Furious. Newell insisted that he and his agents did not let guns "walk," a street term for letting guns go rather than arresting the suspected traffickers.
Newell said the goal of the operation was to disrupt and dismantle an entire drug cartel. In hindsight, he said, he should have conducted more frequent "risk assessments" and regretted not pressing the Phoenix prosecutors to wrap up the case more quickly.
Of the 2,020 firearms bought by straw purchasers from cooperating gun dealers during Fast and Furious, 227 have been recovered during criminal activity in Mexico and 363 have been recovered in the United States. An additional 1,430 remain on the street.