The Fast and Furious Red Herring

The disappearing act known as the congressional Fast and Furious investigation made a brief return to the stage recently when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder became unhinged during questioning by Representative Louis Gohmert (R). The trigger for his defiance was the mention by Rep. Gohmert of possible contempt charges over the Fast and Furious scandal. The AG’s admonition of “Don’t go there buddy,” started discussion as to why Holder reacted in such a strong manner. Sure, he’s hiding something, or someone, but are the White House, ATF, and the AG the only players?

In June 2011, Rep. Darrell Issa’s initial report was published detailing the facts about the operation. Two months later, in August 2011, a Washington Times report based on insider information, revealed the primary motive of the gunrunning was to covertly arm a favored drug cartel not by the ATF, but by the CIA. And in January of this year, American Thinker ran an article documenting a decade-long DEA deal with the drug cartels citing reports going back to the beginning of 2012. It seems Issa’s report generated some interesting responses from other three-letter agencies pretty quickly and consistently for several years. And make no mistake, anytime the CIA leaks to the media about a supposed covert mission, it sends a strong signal to the beltway elite. In this case, “back off.”

But the CIA leak raises an interesting issue, and that is the complete lack of evidence or testimony from intelligence organizations in the House Oversight Committee investigation. In particular, there is no information from the one U.S. military HQ which has responsibility for the security of the North American continent, including dealing with transnational criminal organizations along our southern border. That HQ would be USNORTHCOM.

All combatant command HQ’s have a significant slice of the defense intelligence enterprise, including NORTHCOM, so one would think it could provide valuable information to Issa’s investigation. This would include assessments of foreign involvement in arms smuggling in order to compare data with the ATF on the extent of U.S.-based arms transfers. At least that’s what we’re told the ATF’s purpose of Fast and Furious was all about: to identify U.S. arms networks.

We know that at least one NORTHCOM commander made such an assessment on the situation when Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr., stated in his March 2011 posture statement  (The March 2011 NORTHCOM Posture Statement is no longer available online at the Department of Defense website. A summary can be found at the Congressional Record, and may be requested from the Catalog of US Government Publications) that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs),

“…are vicious, well-financed and heavily armed, due in no small part to cash and weapons smuggled across our southern border.” [Emphasis added]

To dare tread on such a politically sensitive subject, the Admiral’s intelligence apparatus must have had some idea as to what the “no small part” was in contrast to foreign suppliers and smugglers -- right?  Also, his statement was made nearly two years after Fox News busted the myth of the “90 percent” of weapons seized in Mexico as coming from the U.S., and one month after Stratfor reinforced the Fox News analysis.

Obviously, we have no access to the classified reports the Admiral used to make his judgments on weapons smuggling.  However, intelligence agencies have years of experience in analyzing smuggling operations of both conventional and unconventional weapons in foreign countries. Since operational procedures are common across the spectrum of smuggling banned weapons and substances, and given NORTHCOM’s intelligence collection capabilities and information sharing protocols with domestic agencies, it should be a matter of standard intelligence practices to make a reasonable determination of who is smuggling what. Suffice to say that the facts in Rep. Issa’s report are so out of the norm of smugglers’ standard procedures, that it calls into question the ATF’s basic premise of the operation, the Admiral’s statement, and the supposed CIA smuggling effort.

Go with What They Know

An old rule of thumb for quickly arming any organization is to stick with armaments they are familiar with. The cartels’ manpower consists of a significant number of Mexican army and police force deserters who bring their weapons with em. For the TCOs along our southern border, this means G-3 HK (made under license in Mexico, so why bother with smuggling AK-47s?), which fire NATO 7.62x51mm ammo. The G-3 is scheduled to be replaced with the new FX-05 Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent) assault rifle, which uses 5.56x45mm ammo. This is the same round used by the U.S. M-16/M-4 series.

Indeed, smuggling of M-16s and G-3s has an historical precedent in the Latin American region. Cuban assistance to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the late 70s consisted of U.S. M-16s captured in Vietnam and West German G-3s from international arms dealers. Soviet-made AK-47s were specifically left out of the equation to gain international sympathy for the “freedom fighters.”  These same types of Western arms were also supplied to many of the liberation groups in South America.

Yet, in Fast and Furious and/or the covert CIA operation -- take your pick -- the weapon most smuggled from the U.S.?  AK-47 variants using ammo not compatible with the G-3, M-16, or the new Fire Serpent rifle. I’m not saying that the cartels don’t use AK-47s.  I’m saying the singular focus on AKs is suspect since the ATF gave no rationale for smuggling these weapons for an operation designed to identify smuggling networks. If one is going to smuggle something, it should support the customer’s requirements. And if Admiral Winnefield was so concerned about the issue, surely his intelligence sections would have a handle on the types of weapons used by the TCOs, as would the CIA, which knew that the Sinaloa cartel in particular has close ties with the Mexican military.

Buy Bulk, Smuggle Big

If it’s highly unlikely a cartel would put in a request for a shipment of a single type of weapon without large quantities of ammo to logistically support them, it’s also unlikely to make a purchase in such relatively low numbers. This principle has been discussed in great detail by the NRA’s Wayne La Pierre in his excellent article here. The key point is that if a cartel is capable of smuggling billions of dollars worth of drugs using airliners and cargo ships from Central America, why would it buy firearms in penny packets and attempt to get them across the U.S. -- Mexico border?

I won’t belabor the point, but some clarification is required from NORTHCOM’s intelligence section on the rationale for the commander’s statement of weapons coming from the U.S. “in no small part.”  In 2009, the Washington Times reported that the two largest cartels, the Sinaloa and Los Zetas, have over 100,000 foot soldiers.  Against this requirement, the ATF/CIA smuggled a grand total of 1800-plus weapons.

Cost could have been a factor.  But deals for large numbers of weapons would likely have a “bulk” rate rather than purchases of six to ten rifles at a pop, and come from cheaper sources as was done in the region during the 70s. Rogue organization structure, cartel strength, and global weapons tracing are the intelligence organizations’ bread and butter. Are they that off base as to provide assessments to the Admiral in contravention of historical data?

Employ Smuggling Experts

This simple fact probably escapes many in the Beltway crowd, but the intelligence community and our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan can attest to the fact that a smuggler is a smuggler and is capable of transporting many commodities.  From banned chemical and nuclear materials, conventional firearms, oil, and critical technology, the established smugglers and buyers are the preferred means for terrorists and drug cartels to move these items.

First, smugglers and buyers work hard to establish a legitimate pattern of life to throw off surveillance. One day, Joe’s Central Produce is carrying heads of lettuce; the next day, heads of lettuce with rifles or radiological material stored underneath. This pattern is developed over a considerable period of time, not to mention spending weeks and months templating transit points with weak security or border guards susceptible to bribes.

Second, they obviously don’t want to draw attention to their illegal activities. Time and again, investigations of terror groups and smugglers reveal that remaining under the radar becomes more difficult the more complex the weapon is, such as the case when making weaponized chemical agents, or repeatedly going back to the same old well for banned weapons or materiel.  Violations of these principles in Fast and Furious would have been laughable, if it wasn’t so tragic in its consequences. Here are some examples:

  • Jaime Avila was entered as a suspect in the investigation by ATF on November 25, 2009, [snip]… Over the next month and a half, Avila purchased 13 more weapons… Then on January 16, 2010, Avila purchased three AK-47 style rifles, two of which ended up being found at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
  • …watching a guy go into the same gun store (emphasis added) buying another 15 or 20 AK-47s or variants or . . .  five or ten Draco pistols or FN Five-sevens . . .  guys that don’t have a job, and he is walking in here spending $27,000 for three Barrett .50 calibers

And my personal favorite:

  • …a 22-year-old girl walks in and dumps $10,000 on . . . AK-47s in a day, when she is driving a beat up car that doesn’t have enough metal to hold hubcaps on it.

The fact is the ATF knew most of the buyers before the operation began and either explicitly or implicitly gave the green light to buy guns illegally. That is, there was no need for the purchasers to establish any pattern of legitimacy or worry about flying below the radar. On top of this, the buyers transferred the weapons to “third parties” who moved them across the border. Who were the cross-border smugglers? Well, we don’t know, since the ATF withdrew its surveillance to allow the guns to walk. As many others have concluded, the only thing flying under the radar was the administration’s effort to build a case for more gun control.

From a congressional oversight standpoint, not only did the House subcommittee leave the intelligence aspect unexamined, but two months after Issa’s report, enter the CIA answering the unasked questions. However, the revelation of the supposed arming of the Sinaloa cartel is somewhat surprising for a couple of reasons. First is the totally slapdash nature of the operation. To think that the ATF would piggyback on a covert CIA operation conducted in such an incompetent manner is asinine -- or for the ATF, maybe not. Second, having gotten wind of the operation in 2009, both the CIA and DEA complained about the gunwalking effort to the White House through the National Security Council. Yet in 2011, the agency miraculously revealed its own covert scheme to arm the Sinaloa cartel after the publication of the oversight committee’s initial report. In other words, the CIA was against it, before it was for it.

Congressional inaction on something this important is usually for a reason other than laziness. Eventually, someone was bound to question the intelligence community’s contribution either officially or in the cloistered, unofficial beltway network, or admittedly against improbable odds, in the media. A leaked covert operation is just the ticket to get out in front of the issue to shield the community and the administration from intel’s likely involvement in constructing a case for Fast and Furious, and to tout the ever popular interagency cooperation meme.

For its part, USNORTHCOM was perhaps dangerously close to following an infamous historical precedent from the Clinton administration. In 1993, prior to the ATF raid on the Koresh compound outside of Waco, TX, JTF-6 signed on to the ATF’s highly dubious claim that a meth lab was present on the compound. This allegation came after ATF was told it could receive military assistance without reimbursing the Army only if drugs were involved. For unknown reasons; maybe political pressure, continued funding, or in an effort to prove its relevance, JTF-6 willfully ignored several warning signs that the drug aspect was a fabrication used by the ATF to get military equipment and training free of charge. The big difference between then and now is the robust interagency intelligence sharing protocols established since 9-11. Despite good intentions, this potentially can lead to mutually supporting influence peddling among the intel players in the HQs and with higher authority.

For politicians, the tried and true national security/intel operation distracter still works to provide cover to prevent investigations from holding people accountable for their criminal acts. Outside the beltway, the information age, coupled with coverage of multiple scandals involving the Obama administration and its national security apparatus renders this strategy obsolete. A congressional committee investigation has a challenge in this area, however.  If we thought subpoenaed emails were difficult to obtain for the Benghazi investigation, classified documents would be more problematic.  It’s also possible that the assessments have either been purged from the system or the audit trail has been gradually massaged over the years to reflect reporting more in tune with reality. If Issa decides to reenergize the investigation he should turn to the people side of the equation, and hope someone like Brigadier General Lovell will come forward to speak the truth about Fast and Furious.

John Smith is a former member of the intelligence community who has had assignments in Europe and the Middle East.  He currently lives overseas.