The Fast and Furious gun walking scandal

September 20, 2012: 9:57 PM ET

The Government weighed in Wednesday. How does its report differ from Fortune's June Investigation?

By Katherine Eban

Dave Voth, Fast and Furious supervisor for the ATF

FORTUNE -- In a long-awaited report released Wednesday, the Justice Department's Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz spread blame widely for a now notorious gun-trafficking investigation, Fast and Furious, run jointly by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Arizona U.S. Attorney's office.

In the case, agents monitored the voluminous purchase of guns by straw buyers, but seized relatively few. A number of the guns surfaced later at Mexican crime scenes, and at a border site where a U.S. border patrol agent, Brian Terry, was found shot to death by Mexican bandits.

That case and the claims surrounding it were the subject of an extensive investigative article that appeared in Fortune magazine and Fortune.com last June. ("The Truth About the Fast and Furious Scandal.") The article concluded that ATF agents did not conspire to let guns flow across the border but did not seize them in large part because of restrictive legal standards set by federal prosecutors.

The Inspector General's doorstop of a report, at 471 pages, blames agents at ATF's Phoenix field division, prosecutors at the United States Attorney's office in Phoenix, and officials at their respective headquarters in Washington D.C. for a poorly conceived, executed and supervised investigation that failed in the primary mission of law enforcement -- to prioritize public safety. The report argues that a strategy of deferring overt enforcement -- and not immediately approaching straw buyers to seek confessions -- allowed the frenzied gun buying to continue, relatively unchecked. In December 2010, two of the guns purchased previously by a suspect in the case were found at the site of a shootout where Mexican bandits killed U.S. border patrol agent Terry. ATF whistleblowers subsequently alleged that ATF supervisors had directed them to "walk guns," or to allow the guns to flow into the hands of Mexican drug traffickers, as a tactic to build a bigger case.

A preliminary reading of the Inspector General's report appears to corroborate a number of Fortune's findings: that there was no conspiracy to walk guns, no higher-up plan to do so and that walking guns was not the goal of the investigation, but rather a response to "legal and tactical" circumstances on the ground, as the report states.

The report differs from Fortune's findings in its conclusion as to why relatively few guns were seized. While the report details and disparages the restrictive standards used by Arizona federal prosecutors in straw purchasing cases, it concludes that those standards were not a principal impediment to gun seizures, as ATF supervisors in Phoenix contend.

The facts presented by Fortune do not appear to be in dispute, but on this point the Inspector General has drawn a different conclusion from them.

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