It was the day that a powerful congressional committee was supposed to get answers about a botched ATF/DEA gun-running operation that resulted in the 2011 ambush murder of an ICE agent 200 miles north of Mexico City.
Instead, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee spent two hours blasting the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for allowing two of his supervisors to ignore requests to testify at a hearing Thursday over events resembling the Fast and Furious scandal of Obama’s first term.
“You’ll notice there are five seats there and only two have bothered to show up,” Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) told acting ATF Director Thomas Brandon. “When the House invites you to testify, it’s not optional, it’s not whether it’s convenient.”
Missing were Ronald Turk and William Temple, ATF supervisors with jurisdiction over the Texas area where a cache of semi-automatic weapons was purchased – two of which were ultimately used in the slaying of Jaime Zapata as he passed through a toll booth on a Mexican highway in an SUV bearing diplomatic plates. Fellow agent Victor Avila was also shot but survived.
Eight men belonging to the Los Zetas crime syndicate fired 89 shots using AK-47s and AR-15s, according to a report by the Department of Justice Inspector General. The Inspector General’s investigation involved 70 interviews and review of 40,000 pages.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Craft also didn’t attend, but Chaffetz didn’t note it. The U.S. Attorney’s Office was responsible for the early release of a defendant in a drug case who went on to organize the fatal gun trafficking incident.
Chaffetz grilled Brandon as to when he received the Inspector General’s report so his team could adequately prepare for the hearing. Brandon said he only received it a month ago; however, the Inspector General said it was available in December.
To that, Chaffetz replied, “That you didn’t have time is a load of crap and you know it."
Chaffetz continued: “Six years after we had an agent killed, you still don’t get it. You all try to dress it up so you come to Congress and have the best picture and we want the raw truth of what those men and women deal with on the front line.”
Brandon said he advised the men to skip the hearing after asking ATF attorneys whether he could speak for the department. The hearing, titled “Reviewing ATF Failures in the Death of ICE Agent Jaime Zapata,” would not be eagerly attended by agents.
In hindsight, he said he didn’t know that an invitation to testify was mandatory and he meant no disrespect.
To that, an angry and incredulous Chaffetz signed two subpoenas directing Turk and Temple to appear in lengthy depositions on March 21 and 22.
Democrats criticized Brandon as well, including ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who bashed the agents for only notifying the committee of their absence the night before.
“We’ve got the boss who says you don’t have to show up, that sends a hell of a message,” Cummings said.
The hearing did not dissect some of the more damning aspects of the Inspector General’s report: that two brothers, Otilio and Ranferi Osorio, who trafficked the guns, were caught buying 50 high-powered weapons a year before Zapata was murdered and then allowed to continue their enterprise. Another 78 guns were then purchased, including the two weapons used in the killing.
The DEA and ATF had formed a task force, with the DEA claiming to be in charge.
According to the report:
The DEA was investigating a drug dealer and learned about delivery of 50 high powered weapons between Dallas and Laredo on Nov. 2, 2010. The ATF was notified and the delivery was allowed to go through to gather more intelligence. The ATF assumed that the DEA was going to handle the case. The DEA said they would be arresting the couriers but never told the ATF to stop investigating the Osorio brothers.
Another 78 firearms were acquired by the brothers after this, including the guns that killed Zapata.
An ATF supervisor stated that the matter was the DEA's case and that "[w]e were going to wait and move when they were ready for us to move,” the report said.
The DEA did not want ATF to take actions that would jeopardize the DEA's case and ATF had been asked to "stand down" by the DEA, the report said.
The ATF did not initiate an investigation of the Osorio brothers until late February 2011, following Zapata’s murder.
Cummings voiced some sympathy for the ATF.
“The ATF has been treated like a stepchild,” he said. “There are some, if they had it their way, would get rid of you guys immediately. Fast and Furious…gave some the justification to treat you the way that they did.”
Some 1,400 weapons were lost by the ATF in Mexico under "Fast and Furious," which was part of a larger Justice Department operation to track weapons back to gang and drug kingpins in Mexico. One of the trafficked weapons killed Arizona Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in 2010.
“The ATF of 2017 is not the ATF of 2010,” Brandon responded.