I implore everyone interested in this issue to read this piece completely. The 'news' has been covering only distorted 'talking points'.
Here are some tidbits (since the article is long):
Some call it the "parade of ants"; others the "river of iron." The Mexican government has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the U.S. into Mexico. The ATF is hobbled in its effort to stop this flow. No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking, so agents must build cases using a patchwork of often toothless laws. For six years, due to Beltway politics, the bureau has gone without permanent leadership, neutered in its fight for funding and authority. The National Rifle Association has so successfully opposed a comprehensive electronic database of gun sales that the ATF's congressional appropriation explicitly prohibits establishing one.Voth's mandate was to stop gun traffickers in Arizona, the state ranked by the gun-control advocacy group Legal Community Against Violence as having the nation's "weakest gun violence prevention laws." Just 200 miles from Mexico, which prohibits gun sales, the Phoenix area is home to 853 federally licensed firearms dealers. Billboards advertise volume discounts for multiple purchases.
Customers can legally buy as many weapons as they want in Arizona as long as they're 18 or older and pass a criminal background check. There are no waiting periods and no need for permits, and buyers are allowed to resell the guns. "In Arizona," says Voth, "someone buying three guns is like someone buying a sandwich."
By 2009 the Sinaloa drug cartel had made Phoenix its gun supermarket and recruited young Americans as its designated shoppers or straw purchasers. Voth and his agents began investigating a group of buyers, some not even old enough to buy beer, whose members were plunking down as much as $20,000 in cash to purchase up to 20 semiautomatics at a time, and then delivering the weapons to others.By June 2010 the agents had sent the U.S. Attorney's office a list of 31 suspects they wanted to arrest, with 46 pages outlining their illegal acts. But for the next seven months prosecutors did not indict a single suspect.
On Dec. 14, 2010, a tragic event rewrote the narrative of the investigation. In a remote stretch of Peck Canyon, Ariz., Mexican bandits attacked an elite U.S. Border Patrol unit and killed an agent named Brian Terry. The attackers fled, leaving behind two semiautomatic rifles. A trace of the guns' serial numbers revealed that the weapons had been purchased 11 months earlier at a Phoenix-area gun store by a Fast and Furious suspect.Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies. Fortune reviewed more than 2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviewed 39 people, including seven law-enforcement agents with direct knowledge of the case. Several, including Voth, are speaking out for the first time."Republican senators are whipping up the country into a psychotic frenzy with these reports that are patently false," says Linda Wallace, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit who was assigned to the Fast and Furious team (and recently retired from the IRS). A self-described gun-rights supporter, Wallace has not been criticized by Issa's committee.Irony abounds when it comes to the Fast and Furious scandal. But the ultimate irony is this: Republicans who support the National Rifle Association and its attempts to weaken gun laws are lambasting ATF agents for not seizing enough weapons?ones that, in this case, prosecutors deemed to be legal.Without a real-time database of gun sales, they had to perform a laborious archaeology. Day after day, they visited local gun dealers and pored over forms called 4473s, which dealers must keep on file. These contain a buyer's personal information, a record of purchased guns and their serial numbers, and a certification that the buyer is purchasing the guns for himself. (Lying on the forms is a felony, but with weak penalties attached.) The ATF agents manually entered these serial numbers into a database of suspect guns to help them build a picture of past purchases.
By January 2010 the agents had identified 20 suspects who had paid some $350,000 in cash for more than 650 guns. According to Rep. Issa's congressional committee, Group VII had enough evidence to make arrests and close the case then.
This was not the view of federal prosecutors. In a meeting on Jan. 5, 2010, Emory Hurley, the assistant U.S. Attorney in Phoenix overseeing the Fast and Furious case, told the agents they lacked probable cause for arrests, according to ATF records. Hurley's judgment reflected accepted policy at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona. "[P]urchasing multiple long guns in Arizona is lawful," Patrick Cunningham, the U.S. Attorney's then?criminal chief in Arizona would later write. "Transferring them to another is lawful and even sale or barter of the guns to another is lawful unless the United States can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the firearm is intended to be used to commit a crime." (Arizona federal prosecutors referred requests for comment to the Justice Department, which declined to make officials available. Hurley noted in an e-mail, "I am not able to comment on what I understand to be an ongoing investigation/prosecution. I am precluded by federal regulation, DOJ policy, the rules of professional conduct, and court order from talking with you about this matter." Cunningham's attorney also declined to comment.)
It was nearly impossible in Arizona to bring a case against a straw purchaser. The federal prosecutors there did not consider the purchase of a huge volume of guns, or their handoff to a third party, sufficient evidence to seize them. A buyer who certified that the guns were for himself, then handed them off minutes later, hadn't necessarily lied and was free to change his mind. Even if a suspect bought 10 guns that were recovered days later at a Mexican crime scene, this didn't mean the initial purchase had been illegal. To these prosecutors, the pattern proved little. Instead, agents needed to link specific evidence of intent to commit a crime to each gun they wanted to seize.Prosecutors repeatedly rebuffed Voth's requests. After examining one suspect's garbage, agents learned he was on food stamps yet had plunked down more than $300,000 for 476 firearms in six months. Voth asked if the ATF could arrest him for fraudulently accepting public assistance when he was spending such huge sums. Prosecutor Hurley said no. In another instance, a young jobless suspect paid more than $10,000 for a 50-caliber tripod-mounted sniper rifle. According to Voth, Hurley told the agents they lacked proof that he hadn't bought the gun for himself.
Voth grew deeply frustrated. In August 2010, after the ATF in Texas confiscated 80 guns?63 of them purchased in Arizona by the Fast and Furious suspects? Voth got an e-mail from a colleague there: "Are you all planning to stop some of these guys any time soon? That's a lot of guns?Are you just letting these guns walk?"
Voth responded with barely suppressed rage: "Have I offended you in some way? Because I am very offended by your e-mail. Define walk? Without Probable Cause and concurrence from the USAO [U.S. Attorney's Office] it is highway robbery if we take someone's property." He then recounted the situation with the unemployed suspect who had bought the sniper rifle. "We conducted a field interview and after calling the AUSA [assistant U.S. Attorney] he said we did not have sufficient PC [probable cause] to take the firearm so our suspect drove home with said firearm in his car?any ideas on how we could not let that firearm 'walk'"?Less than 36 hours after the CBS report, Voth was jolted awake at dawn by the blaring of his burglar alarm. With his wife and children still in bed, he crept down the stairs of his desert home, his ATF-issued .40 caliber Sig Sauer extended before him. In the garage, he saw a door ajar and a massive kettle bell he used for workouts knocked from its place. Outside, the fleeing intruder had left behind a partial footprint in the sand.
As Voth waited for the police, he checked his e-mail and found an anonymous threat, sent minutes earlier: "You God-damned stupid 'Yes-Man' who does not have either the morals, or the intelligence, to realize that allowing this 'Fast and Furious' operation would result in unnecessary, unjustified deaths: MAY YOU EAT SHIT AND DIE." Later his wife found a strange car outside their house and an angry post on the Internet listing their home address. Voth confidentially shared his concern about that post in a meeting with two senior ATF officials, only to find an account of the meeting on the Sipsey Street blog within 24 hours.
The ATF's office of operations security investigated the threats to Voth. A confidential report on March 29, 2011, concluded, "ATF 'insiders' are the number one threat to GS Voth and his family." The report cited "at least six individuals," whom it did not name, who had "personal agendas to undermine the credibility of ATF supervisors and members of management as retribution for [Voth's] operational shortcomings." The report cited the two blogs and concluded that "the malicious intent of insiders" had led directly to Voth's becoming the target of a "nation-wide?libel campaign."New facts are still coming to light?and will likely continue to do so with the Justice Department inspector general's report expected in coming months. Among the discoveries: Fast and Furious' top suspects?Sinaloa Cartel operatives and Mexican nationals who were providing the money, ordering the guns, and directing the recruitment of the straw purchasers?turned out to be FBI informants who were receiving money from the bureau. That came as news to the ATF agents in Group VII.Issa's claim that the ATF is using the Fast and Furious scandal to limit gun rights seems, to put it charitably, far-fetched. Meanwhile, Issa and other lawmakers say they want ATF to stanch the deadly tide of guns, widely implicated in the killing of 47,000 Mexicans in the drug-war violence of the past five years. But the public bludgeoning of the ATF has had the opposite effect. From 2010, when Congress began investigating, to 2011, gun seizures by Group VII and the ATF's three other groups in Phoenix dropped by more than 90%.