Counter-arguments to charges by Obama administration supporters that Fast and Furious “gunwalking” began in the Bush-era Operation Wide Receiver program have been gaining wider attention over the past few days, with numerous tips and inquiries being sent by readers to Gun Rights Examiner for comment. Just as with many of the wrong assumptions being promulgated by administration supporters, there are some misconceptions being promoted by its detractors that require clarification if the goal is to understand what happened, as opposed to merely spreading a “perception becomes reality” meme.
Among these misconceptions being repeated: that no Wide Receiver guns “walked” to Mexico because they were all controlled deliveries; that no one was killed; that the Mexican government was fully informed; that RFID tracking devices were placed in all the guns; and that the program was shut down at the first sign of danger.
Gun dealer and writer Mike Detty was a central figure in Wide Receiver, who, in his capacity as confidential informant for ATF, sold 450 rifles and handguns to suspected traffickers. As Paul Barrett reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, “The vast majority of the guns were never recovered by U.S. authorities.” This means control was not maintained on all deliveries, and it is impossible to tell if any people have been killed, and if so, how many. Still, it's crucial to note Detty was told that surveillance would be maintained, and he took great personal risk to assist law enforcement.
Relying on a past relationship that has yielded exclusive reports in this column (this correspondent put Detty and Oversight Committee investigators in touch with each other in August, 2011), Gun Rights Examiner approached him to get a clarifying perspective on these claims.
“It's amazing how much traction that RFID story gets,” Detty replied. “While there were a couple times during Wide Receiver that tracking devices were placed on cars there was not a single weapon that was outfitted with any kind of tracking instrument.”
“They had a unit that they tried to place in the hollowed out butt of a Yugo AK,” he explained. “While they were trying to get it to work I called a buddy who works with one of the most elite military units in the world. He told me, ‘there will be two limiting factors. One is battery life and the other is that if they have to wrap the antenna around the unit to get it to fit it will never work correctly. I know because we've tried it too.’ He was exactly right! The unit never worked correctly and was never fielded.”
“ATF purchased that Yugo from me and as far as I know it is still in their evidence locker,” Detty continued. “Someone might say, maybe Detty didn't know they put tracking devices on the guns. Well, guns came to me from distributors and went from my possession at my home to the bad guys' possession. There would have been no opportunity for ATF to place tracking devices in any of the guns. While they might have small and effective tracking devices now, my Tucson ATF branch did not have access to anything that would work in 2007.”
Admittedly, this seemingly conflicts with earlier reports that some guns were so equipped and that those being tracked circled their cars around and waited for surveillance planes to have to land. It does not necessarily invalidate either contention so much as it presents information from sources that had different operational perspectives, and Gun Rights Examiner will pursue reconciling these different accounts.
As for the Mexican government being informed, the Businessweek article refers to “fleeting contacts with Mexican police,” and Gun Rights Examiner reported on a Tucson operation “launched out of ATF’s Phoenix field division” in 2007 in which Mexican police said they never saw a car agents on the U.S. side had tracked crossing the border. That said, it appears to have been a different case than Wide Receiver, so this correspondent again queried Detty.
“All I can tell you is what the first prosecutor on OWR told me,” he answered. “A couple years after the case ended we met a gun show. He and his son purchased rifles from me and I handed him a business card.”
“When I mentioned Wide Receiver he knew who I was immediately and we talked over an hour,” Detty recalled. “‘I can't believe those f-ing ATF guys had you selling guns from your house-you're lucky to be alive,’ the prosecutor said. When I asked why OWR was never prosecuted he told me, ‘ATF lied to me about the Mexican's cooperation. I don't mean the field agents you worked with, I mean at a higher level. Once I found out that the case was based on a lie I declined it. Why would I go into court with a case where I have to sacrifice my personal integrity and credibility because ATF lied.’"
“I've been saying it to anyone who will listen,” Detty added, “Bill Newell [Phoenix Special Agent in Charge] was politically motivated. He saw himself running ATF one day and thought that he'd score points by bringing big headlines and obtaining increased funding for his agency. Despite the poor results of OWR no one at DOJ stopped him or even admonished him. Why wouldn't he do it again on a grander level when he had Dennis Burke (one of the authors of the original 'assault weapons' ban and aide to Janet Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona) as his US Attorney? There is only one conclusion that could be made and that is American guns showing up at crime scenes in Mexico and in Mexican hands here in the U.S. would be the ammunition they needed to push for more gun control.”
While Detty’s revelations about tracking devices and a Mexican law enforcement alliance may disappoint some, it’s important to keep focused on the goal being the truth, no matter where the chips fall. And there is one paramount point Detty made earlier that undermines the “Bush authorized it too” meme, and that’s his assertion that “It had nothing to do with Bush or even DOJ,” which is corroborated in part by an October 5, 2007 email from Anne Marie Paskalis, senior counsel in charge of field operations, indicating that the U.S. Attorney’s office “is not yet fully on board with this investigation,” and noting that it was shut down the following day--over a year into the program, as opposed to "at the first sign of danger."
But with the goal of holding everyone accountable and ensuring cross-border gunwalking never happens again, those interested in the truth ought to welcome full investigations, including of corruption allegations happening in preceding administrations. Its’ not like ATF management suddenly reversed polarity and started misbehaving when Obama took office.
To that end, those insisting on expanding investigations to include Wide Receiver need to first account for the deliberate indifference the Oversight Committee showed to whistleblower allegations back when it was controlled by Democrats. Then they need to do the same thing Mike Vanderboegh and this correspondent did back when the Gunwalker ball got rolling: Get agency insiders in the know and capable of producing documented testimony to trust them, get politicians able to do something about it to open an investigation, and scream from the rooftops until someone in the mainstream press notices and picks up on it. And it would also be a good idea to talk to Detty.
Otherwise, it’s a safe bet administration apologists with the goal of derailing the Fast and Furious inquiry are just making noise trying to distract public attention from the real issues.
UPDATE: Jim Shepherd of The Outdoor Wire kindly responded to my request for clarification on RFID tracking and is allowing me to share his reply--please note that he did not have access to his notes at the time:
As I recall our F&F stuff said the bad guys knew how to beat the feds surveilling them. They drove around (seemingly aimlessly) in their cars, then beat a trail to the border when the Feds ran out of flight time.
That was eyeball surveillance on their vehicles. I don't recall writing a lot about RFID because Detty told me in our initial meeting the technology was tried, and wouldn't work. And most of of my Wide Receiver material began with Detty.
He gave me the detailed info on the evasion techniques the bad guys used, but they were to evade airborne vehicle surveillance. Another technique I recall is the switch-out of vehicles during that same refueling time.
When I went out to try and corroborate Detty's material, I talked with tech guys who were working with RFID at approximately that same time. They said there were two problems that absolutely would defeat RFID tracking: battery life and antennas. That tracked exactly with Detty's recollections -and I honestly didn't track far past that point. Neither party knew the other and their explanations matched. I do recall writing a couple of times that the feds repeatedly did what has failed the intelligence-gathering community repeatedly over the past couple of decades: rely on gee-whiz technology rather than shoe leather investigation and witnesses.