ATF officials ignored red flags on website intended to help stop gun-trafficking

When Phoenix agents documented suspicious weapons sales, supervisors let the firearms wind up with cartels, Republican aides say

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix recorded abnormal sales of firearms in an electronic weapons-tracking system but no one intervened to stop the cross-border gunrunning, aides for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee told Nextgov.

Instead of using eTrace to arrest buyers and seize weapons, ATF officials used it to confirm that guns they were sending into a sting operation called Fast and Furious reached the hands of criminals in Mexico, according to a report issued this week by Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Justice Committee.

The report was released before a hearing Issa held Wednesday to examine what he called an irresponsible program that facilitated the smuggling of firearms to drug cartels. The committee wants to know whether top Justice Department officials authorized the operation, which began in 2009, and why it was allowed to continue until Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was fatally shot in December 2010. Two weapons linked to the program were found at the crime scene.

The eTrace system tracks firearms from the point of manufacture through wholesale or retail distribution to the first retail purchase, according to ATF documents. The online application allows law enforcement personnel to link weapons to criminal suspects and flag potential traffickers.

"By entering serial numbers from suspicious transactions into [eTrace], ATF would be quickly notified as each [weapon] was later recovered at crime scenes and traced, either in the United States or in Mexico," the report said.

One law enforcement officer noticed an unusually high number of Barrett .50-caliber rifles from the Phoenix area were reported as suspicious. The officer tried to intervene, but supervisors dismissed the officer's efforts, Issa's communications director Frederick Hill told Nextgov on Friday.

Supervisors in the Phoenix ATF office responsible for the sting would rejoice when guns retrieved at crime scenes in Mexico were linked back to firearms they had sent out into the field, according to the lawmakers' report. John Dodson, a whistleblower who was a special agent for the ATF Phoenix field division, recalled that whenever his boss "would get a trace report back . . . he was jovial, if not, not giddy, but just delighted about that, hey, 20 of our guns were recovered with 350 pounds of dope in Mexico last night. And it was exciting. To them it proved the nexus to the drug cartels."

Hill said Phoenix agents acted appropriately in documenting atypical sales through eTrace, but their bosses looked the other way. "If someone saw a listing of weapons being tracked, they [should] ask where are these weapons now? If you have somebody's name in there 600 times, why has that person been allowed to buy 600 guns? Have you arrested him? Have you confiscated the guns?"

Separately, federal internal investigators have reported that eTrace is supposed to be the primary source of investigative leads on guns trafficked to Mexico.

"The purchase of multiple guns within a short period of time by an individual who is not a gun dealer may indicate that the individual is engaged in firearms trafficking," stated a November 2010 Justice Department inspector general review of a border anti-crime initiative called Project Gunrunner, which includes Fast and Furious.

Other indicators of illicit gun dealing include multiple sales by a buyer who is listed on other gun traces, multiple purchases by a buyer born outside the United States and repeated purchases of five or more guns, according to the evaluation.

A spokesman said ATF will not comment on any of the allegations brought by the oversight committee due to an ongoing criminal investigation and federal prosecution, as well as a Justice inspector general review.

The spokesman said eTrace, which also is accessible in Spanish, contains more than 17,000 individual law enforcement user accounts, including accounts registered by law enforcement agencies in 29 foreign countries. ATF traces U.S.-originating firearms recovered outside U.S. borders for law enforcement officials in those countries, he added.