On the night of Dec. 14, 2010, a firefight erupted in the Southern Arizona desert.
According to court documents obtained by CBS News, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was part of a squad that spotted a group of illegal immigrants, some armed with assault rifles. When the illegals refused to drop their weapons -- in a pathetic symbol of the current administration's "college kid" approach to the dangers of the real world -- agents fired "less than lethal" bean bags. The bandits fired back with real bullets.
Terry was shot and killed. His partners returned fire with a rifle and pistol, but it was too late.
In the rank and file of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- still generally referred to as the ATF -- discouraging words began to be heard. Was it possible the agency's "Project Gunrunner" -- and a Phoenix spin-off called "Fast and Furious" -- had provided bad guys with the firearms used to kill Agent Terry?
Though official ATF spokesmen initially denied purposely allowing any weapons to cross the border, whistle-blowers spoke to Second Amendment activist David Codrea and others of an operation that provided assault weapons to buyers who would then "walk" the guns over the border and sell them to members of the Mexican drug cartels. The goal was to provide the bad guys with weapons with traceable serial numbers, thus helping manufacture evidence against them.
How many guns? On March 28, Fox News reported "Congress and the Department of Justice appear to be headed for a showdown this week over documents detailing Operation Fast and Furious, the botched gunrunning sting set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that funneled more than 1,700 smuggled weapons from Arizona to Mexico."
Demanded from the Justice Department by March 30 were "a stack of records and emails naming the individuals responsible for the gun trafficking operation that may have killed dozens, if not hundreds of Mexicans, and is becoming a growing embarrassment for the Obama administration."
Under Project Gunrunner -- now frequently and sarcastically dubbed "Gunwalker" -- and the Phoenix offshoot Fast and Furious, the ATF encouraged gun store owners to sell to straw buyers, consumers who they suspected of working on behalf of Mexican drug cartels, reported William La Jeunesse at Fox.
Using this investigative technique, records show the ATF "allowed more than 1,700 guns, including hundreds of AK-47s and high-powered, armor-piercing .50-caliber rifles to be trafficked to Mexico," Fox News reported.
Under one of our thousands of unconstitutional gun laws, buying guns to pass along to others is illegal. But gun store owners were reportedly assured by ATF agents the buyers were under investigation and the guns would be intercepted before crossing into Mexico.
'Told to go through with sales'
President Obama, speaking for the first time on the growing scandal, conceded last month that Operation Fast and Furious may have been "a serious mistake," but he claimed, "I did not authorize it; Eric Holder, the attorney general, did not authorize it. He's been very clear that our policy is to catch gunrunners and put them into jail."
An investigation by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, could show otherwise.
Rep. Issa contends gunmen who shot up an SUV carrying two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents inside Mexico in mid-February, killing Special Agent Jaime Zapata, 32, were also using guns purchased in the United States, and that his investigators will now check to see whether those weapons were linked to Gunrunner.
Humberto Trevino, a senior Mexican lawmaker, says at least 150 people have been shot with ATF-monitored guns.
Two of the gun stores involved were Carter's Country in Houston and J&G Gun Sales in Prescott, Ariz., Fox News reports.
"Let me tell you something about Carter's Country. They have been cooperating with ATF from the get-go," says Carter's Country attorney Dick Deguerin. "They were told to go through with what they considered to be questionable sales. They were told to go through with sales of three or more assault rifles at the same time or five or more 9mm guns at the same time or a young Hispanic male paying in cash. It's all profiling, but they went through with it."
Both gun stores felt betrayed by the ATF, Deguerin says -- first by records leaked to The Washington Post that showed the two stores responsible for dozens of guns found at Mexican crime scenes, now by Operation Fast and Furious.
"You assumed they had your back," J&G President Brad Desaye told Fox. "Absolutely, we felt like partners with ATF in a lot of ways."
Rep. Issa wants details, but on April 1, the California congressman said the Obama administration had failed to meet his deadlines for providing requested documents. So Rep. Issa said he'll proceed to subpoena the ATF.
In England, the Guardian newspaper and its website have been even less charitable toward official "Who, me?" denials, both in Washington and in Mexico City.
"Nearly two weeks after extensive reports on the gun-walking scandal have come to light, no senior figure in Mexico's federal government has yet denounced the ATF's tactics. ..." The Guardian reports.
No major cartel figures arrested
"Since 'Project Gunrunner' began in 2008, over 30,000 cartel-related deaths have been recorded in Mexico. Thus far, the only reported successes from these operations appear to be the arrest of 20 arms traffickers by the ATF this January. Given the immeasurable damage that these operations are likely to have caused, and the little information available on them so far, both governments still have a lot of explaining to do -- and soon," The Guardian reports.
At a news conference in February, the ATF in Phoenix announced 34 suspects had been indicted and that agents had seized 375 weapons as part of Operation Fast and Furious. None of those arrested was a significant cartel figure.
Meantime, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has expressed concern that -- far from being forthcoming -- the ATF has launched a stonewall operation designed to isolate and punish whistle-blowers.
On the House side, Rep. Issa said last month, "I have four investigators working full-time on this, and we're not going to quit until we see, not just an answer, but an absolute guarantee that this cannot happen again. ... The gun shops are often vilified for being the source -- well in this case, they did the right thing, they contacted the agent, and they were told to go ahead. ...
"Two individuals, maybe more, lost their life needlessly because AK-47s got over the border -- not by accident, they got there as part of, effectively, a plot, by the very people who we believe should be protecting us from those weapons getting into the wrong hands."
I doubt we've gotten to the bottom of Operation Gunwalker. But that's what we know, so far.
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal, and author of the novel "The Black Arrow" and "Send in the Waco Killers." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.