WASHINGTON — Congressional investigators looking into the controversial "Fast and Furious" antigun-trafficking operation on the border with Mexico believe at least six Mexican drug cartel figures involved in gun smuggling also were paid FBI informers, officials said Saturday.
The investigators have asked the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration for details about the alleged informers, as well as why agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which ran the Fast and Furious operation, were not told about them.
The development raises further doubts about the now-shuttered program, which was created in November 2009 in an effort to track guns across the border and unravel the cartels' gun smuggling networks. The gun tracing largely failed, however, and hundreds of weapons purchased in U.S. shops later were found at crime scenes in Mexico.
The scandal has angered Mexican officials and some members of Congress. Investigators say nearly 2,500 guns were allowed to flow illegally into Mexico under the ATF program, fueling the drug violence ravaging that country and leading to the shooting death of a U.S. border agent.
In a letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, the investigators asked why U.S. taxpayers' money apparently was paid to Mexican cartel members who have terrorized the border region for years in their efforts to smuggle drugs into this country, and to ship U.S. firearms into Mexico.
"We have learned of the possible involvement of paid FBI informants in Operation Fast and Furious," wrote Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The two have been the leading congressional critics of the program.
"At least one individual who is allegedly an FBI informant might have been in communication with, and was perhaps even conspiring with, at least one suspect whom ATF was monitoring," they wrote.
The FBI and DEA did not tell the ATF about the alleged informers. The ATF and congressional investigators learned later that those agencies apparently were paying cartel members whom the ATF wanted to arrest.
The FBI and DEA referred queries Saturday to the Department of Justice. Officials there said they cannot talk about paid informers, but are attempting to answer the questions from Issa and Grassley.
They noted that they already have provided thousands of pages of documents to Congress, and have answered questions in sworn depositions and open hearings.
The ATF ran the Fast and Furious operation out of its field office in Phoenix until early this year. The idea was to monitor illegal purchases in federally licensed U.S. gun shops, but allow the illicit buyers to walk away with the weapons, giving ATF agents the opportunity to learn how the guns are smuggled across the border. But many of their gun-tracing efforts failed, and hundreds of firearms purchased under the program were used in crimes in Mexico.