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Fast and Furious - Anatomy of a Failed Operation

Fast and Furious - Anatomy of a Failed Operation

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Published by: National Security Internet Archive on Jul 31, 2012
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FINDING:

A missed hand-off: DEA believed there was probable cause to arrest
Manuel Celis-Acosta for gun crimes based on evidence it had collected
from its state wire intercept in a December 2009 drug case. DEA does
not have jurisdiction over gun crimes. Though DEA gave ATF access
to this evidence, ATF “dropped the ball” by failing to review or act on
any of it.

On November 28, 2009, the ATF case agent for Fast and Furious, Special Agent Hope
MacAllister, e-mailed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) with twelve telephone
numbers to deconflict.75

Deconfliction is the process by which one agency checks its target
phone numbers against target phone numbers from other agencies to determine if there is any
overlap. On December 14, 2009, DEA special agents contacted MacAllister and her co-case
agent, Special Agent Tonya English.76

DEA advised that one of the telephone numbers ATF had
submitted for deconfliction was related to Operation Flaco Feo, an ongoing DEA investigation in
which DEA had an active state wiretap.77

An internal DEA e-mail from December 14, 2009

illustrates the level of detailed information available to DEA and ATF:78

The following day, ATF Group Supervisor Voth and Special Agents MacAllister and
English attended a meeting in which DEA agents shared information they had acquired on one of
ATF’s targets, Manuel Celis-Acosta.79

DEA provided ATF with a packet of the wire intercepts

DEA had gathered to date on Celis-Acosta.80

According to DEA, it also agreed to thereafter
provide ATF agents access to the DEA wire room, where live wiretap intercepts from the state

75

E-mail from Hope MacAllister to [DEA] (Nov. 28, 2009) (Exhibit 39).

76

Briefing by Justice Department staff to Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government
Reform Committee staff (Oct. 5, 2011) [hereinafter October 5 Briefing].

77

See Operation Fast and Furious, OCDETF Proposal Narrative (Jan. 26, 2010), at 3 (Exhibit 16).

78

E-mail from [DEA] to [DEA] (Dec. 14, 2009) (Exhibit 40).

79

DEA Report of Investigation (ROI) 50, “Deconfliction Meeting with DEA Personnel on December 15, 2009”

(Exhibit 41).

80

Id.

35

wiretap were received and archived for analysis.81

An internal DEA e-mail from December 16,

2009, recounted the meeting with ATF:82

According to multiple law enforcement sources both in ATF and in other agencies, ATF

could have and should have employed additional investigative techniques to disrupt the targets’

illegal activities based on information in the DEA wire intercept. In mid-December 2009, DEA
wire intercepts may have even provided probable cause for ATF to make arrests of Fast and
Furious suspects. According to a later ATF document, “On December 21, 2009, an intercepted
telephone call between CELIS-ACOSTA and an Operation FLACO FEO target revealed that
firearms recently purchased in Phoenix were going to be driven to El Paso, TX and trafficked

into Mexico.”83

Specifically, the DEA wire intercepts showed that Celis-Acosta was receiving
money to traffic the weapons, and that although they were destined for Juarez, Mexico, he did
not want to be asked to take them there in person. These intercepts were stronger than any of the
evidence on ATF’s targets that had been gathered to date, and DEA officials have told
congressional investigators they believe this evidence constituted probable cause for arrests by
ATF.84

Yet, Group VII apparently failed to act on these more specific intercepts. Voth has
claimed that DEA did not share that evidence with ATF “when the information was actionable,”
although he acknowledged that he himself was out of the office from December 19 to December
27, 2009.85

Still, the Case Management Log states that ATF received the information on
December 21, 2009, the morning of the intercept:86

81

October 5 Briefing (supra note 76).

82

E-mail from [DEA] to [DEA] (Dec. 16, 2009) (Exhibit 42).

83

Operation Fast and Furious, OCDETF Proposal Narrative (Jan. 26, 2010), at 3 (Exhibit 16).

84

Drug Enforcement Administration Briefing of the Majority Staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform
Committee and Minority Staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Oct. 20, 2011).

85

Letter from Joshua Levy to Chairman Darrell Issa and Ranking Member Grassley (Mar. 14, 2012), Attachment 3,
Declaration of David Voth at 5 (other attachments omitted) (Exhibit 43).

86

ATF Management Log, Case 785115-10-[redacted] (Dec. 23, 2009) (Exhibit 44).

“On[] the plus side, we
have the conspiracy

through the wire . . .”

36

The Glendale detective whose name is redacted was a DEA Task Force Officer (TFO) who had
also provided ATF with wire intercept information on December 16, 2009.87

Based on the

TFO’s December 21, 2009, phone call, Group VII should have had enough actionable
information to intercept the firearms on their way to El Paso, as well as connect the trafficking
with evidence of intent from the DEA wire. ATF agents apparently squandered this information.
ATF continued to press forward, prolonging the case even though, according to DEA, ATF
already had enough evidence to charge the suspects with conspiracy.

DEA continued to communicate and share materials with ATF. The Case Management
Log indicates that someone in Group VII talked to DEA on December 24, 2009.88

Later, DEA says it provided ATF with a thumb drive of wire intercepts from December 15 to
December 29, 2009.89

DEA also provided the materials a third time in mid-January after Voth
requested that all the call summaries and transcripts be provided to him in order to assist with the
writing of Group VII’s federal wiretap application. In a January 14, 2010, e-mail, DEA
personnel wrote to Voth about getting him the materials again:90

[INTENTIONALLY BLANK]

87

ATF Management Log, Case 785115-10-[redacted] (Dec. 16, 2009) (Exhibit 44).

88

ATF Management Log, Case 785115-10-[redacted] (Dec. 24, 2009) (Exhibit 44).

89

October 5 Briefing (supra note 76).

90

E-mail from [DEA] to David Voth (Jan. 14, 2010) (Exhibit 45).

37

A January 17, 2010 FBI document provides more detail of what had been gathered through the
DEA wire by that point:

“The guys [Target A] had there were ready to start working hard at the beginning of
the year. . . . [Target B’s] guy Acosta is coming over. Acosta is source of supply for
guns.”

“[Target C] asked [Target A] about the toys (guns). [Target C] has 32 Romanian
assault rifles, with folding stocks—new in the box. ‘1 buck each’ ($1000).”

“[Target A] has third party interested in the guns. Wants them transported to El Paso.
[Target A] will wire money in the morning. Set up transport of guns in trailer.”

“[Target C] has guy who will transport guns to [Target A] in El Paso. $1300 each
gun. Acosta and [Target C’s] cousin will bring the guns. Sending them in morning.
[Target A] will wire money via Western Union Right now.”

“More conversation regarding the guns and wire transfer. The guns are ready to go
via transport. . . .”91

91

FBI Form FD-302, at 4 (Jan. 17, 2010) (Exhibit 46).

“[B]een try to e-mail all the call
summaries and transcripts but there
are over one hundred calls.”

38

“Guns en route. Acosta doesn’t want to be asked to take the guns into Juarez.”

“[Target A] sending $2200 for guns to Bank of America account . . . .”92

“[Target C] and [Target A] discuss the price and availability of the .50 caliber rifles.

They can be sent to [Target A]. Further discussion about the amount of profit they

will make on the rifles.”93

92

Id. at 5.

93

Id. at 6.

39

As these summaries show, the DEA wiretap information available to ATF provided
detailed information about Celis-Acosta and several other suspects. Target A, the trafficker who
was purchasing firearms from Celis-Acosta and transporting them to Mexico, was one of the
main targets of Fast and Furious. The DEA wire intercepts identified Target A by the January
17, 2010 document, if not sooner.

DEA says that only after January 14, 2010, did ATF start showing up to the joint wire

room on a daily basis.94

Later that month ATF recognized the significance of the earlier
intercepts. According to one document Group VII put together that month:

During a Deconfliction [sic] meeting with the DEA on December 15, 2009, the
[DEA agents] advised that numerous telephone calls had been intercepted
involving [redacted] and the [DEA] targets. [Redacted] is believed to be in Agua
Prieta, Mexico, and has been intercepted orchestrating different amounts of US
currency being illegally brought into the US for the purpose of purchasing
firearms via the [DEA] targets. Those targets were intercepted making
arrangements with telephone numbers utilized by CELIS-ACOSTA,
CHAMBERS, and STEWARD to obtain the firearms for [redacted]. On
December 21, 2009, an intercepted phone call between CELIS-ACOSTA and
a [DEA] target revealed that firearms recently purchased in Phoenix were
going to be driven to El Paso, TX and trafficked into Mexico.
95

Inexplicably, ATF failed to make use of the most critical information DEA shared. Instead of
focusing on individuals above Celis-Acosta in the firearms trafficking network, ATF continued
to focus on the straw purchasers below Celis-Acosta.

ATF would spend the next eight months trying to establish a connection between Celis-

Acosta’s straw purchasing and Mexican drug cartels. Yet the DEA wire intercepts had already

established this connection by January 2010. The DEA wire would later be thrown out of
court.96

However, ATF didn’t know in early 2010 that that would happen. If ATF had bothered

to conduct a thorough review of all the information contained in the DEA wire intercepts, Fast
and Furious might have concluded a year earlier than it did. According to former ATF Deputy

Director Hoover, ATF simply “dropped the ball” during this crucial time in the investigation.97

Celis-Acosta would not be indicted until January 19, 2011.

94

October 5 Briefing (supra note 76).

95

Operation Fast and Furious, OCDETF Proposal Narrative (Jan. 26, 2010), at 3 (emphasis added) (Exhibit 16).

96

October 5 Briefing (supra note 76).

97

Id.

40

There appears to have been a greater level of communication and coordination with ATF
by the DEA than by the FBI. The DEA actively shared information repeatedly. It made the gun
trafficking information gleaned from its state wiretap available to ATF on multiple
occasions. Since it lacks jurisdiction over gun cases, DEA had no incentive to hoard information
about gun trafficking from any other agency. Conversely, the FBI had cooperated with DEA in
another operation, but did not aggressively push gun trafficking information to ATF. Unlike
DEA, the FBI shares concurrent jurisdiction over gun trafficking cases with ATF, which creates
a disincentive to share information and may have had an impact on the effectiveness of
coordination between the two agencies.

[INTENTIONALLY BLANK]

41

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