Whistleblower Answers Questions About ATF/DOJ Fast and Furious Malfeasance

Former ATF Agent Peter Forcelli IMG CSPAN Video c4354559
Former ATF Agent Peter Forcelli IMG CSPAN Video c4354559

“ATF whistleblowers sound alarm on Biden admin proposal that effectively bans private gun sales,” Fox News reported in early February. “Watchdog group says alleged ATF proposal would ‘go after law-abiding citizens for private’ gun sales.”

One of the names in the story was familiar, Pete Forcelli, a retired ATF deputy assistant director turned “whistleblower” and author of The Deadly Path: How Operation Fast & Furious and Bad Lawyers Armed Mexican Cartels, scheduled to go on sale March 5, and available now for pre-order. AmmoLand will post my review of this book as a follow-up to this report.

The name was familiar because both my colleague, the late Mike Vanderboegh, and I had written about Forcelli’s testimony back in 2011. It was the story of a man smuggling grenades across the border to the Mexican cartels the Department of Justice did not want to prosecute, and when it got exposed, tried throwing agents under the bus.

“Three hours ago the Wall Street Journal ran this, a story that David and I were aware of for about a week but were asked not to mention,” Mike wrote on his Sipsey Street Irregulars blog. “David will have his own story out tomorrow morning. Note that DOJ is still trying to cover up by blaming the agents. Note also that they are retaliating against Pete Forcelli.”

Mike and I were not only ready to go with it (albeit unwilling to burn a source and post under a requested embargo), but after the mainstream press has been on it for days now, there was only one place hosting the letter (other stories only talked about it) from the attorney for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association to Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa detailing not just the setup for the grenade operation, but also, and importantly, about the retaliation his ATF agent-client was subjected to by DOJ management for testifying at a House Oversight Committee hearing.

The column I wrote at the time is now only retrievable via the Internet Archive, so not only is formatting a mess, but it may take forever to load, and many of the internal links no longer work, including the slideshow where the letter was posted. Fortunately, I saved the file and now have a copy posted at my War On Guns Placeholder site, where it can be accessed and downloaded and hopefully noticed by someone with the resources to renew investigations.

With that as a backdrop, I was delighted when AmmoLand Editor-in-Chief Fredy Riehl asked me to interview Forcelli and review his book, especially since so many of the characters appearing in its pages were DOJ and ATF functionaries Mike and I had written about, some many times. I found Pete, which is what he encouraged me to call him, to be approachable and forthright.

He pledged from the start that no questions would be off limits. Once more, the paradox arose as when Vanderboegh and I, both Second Amendment red meat absolutists, developed trust and respect for men you’d think we’d be mortal enemies with. There’s no other way to explain it than to say while we hoped the guys who trusted us with information they freely provided would come to accept “shall not be infringed,” they each shared qualities as men that we came to respect and admire: Personal courage and willingness to put their all on the line against the baddest of the bad, a sense of duty and honor, and utter candidness with no façade.

So Vanderboegh and I were both gratified when Fast and Furious whistleblower John Dodson trusted our recommendation to speak with Sharyl Attkisson for her historic and Murrow Award-winning CBS News interview and coverage, which ultimately resulted in management deciding she was now a liability to their agenda. I was genuinely honored when Jay Dobyns, the man who infiltrated the Hells’ Angels and lived to tell about it, made a special trip to meet me and hear me speak. And I mourned the passing of the agent Vince Cefalu, a driving force behind the CleanUpATF website, where allegations of “walked guns” first appeared, a man who never was afraid to call someone he didn’t respect something I can’t repeat here, and whose words to me under his autograph on RatSnakes meant a lot about sentiments going both ways.

With preliminaries out of the way, here’s the Forcelli interview. I started with the question I figured most readers rolling their eyes at my last paragraph would probably want me to ask.

DC: Thank you for agreeing to answer all questions put in front of a readership that views “shall not be infringed” as a “hands-off” mandate to government. So let me get the toughest question out of the way first: An observation that Second Amendment advocates are going to make is to challenge the constitutionality of ATF and the “gun laws” it enforces to even exist in the first place, especially now considering the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision invalidating laws not supported by text, history, and tradition in the time of the Founders. How do you respond?

PF: I understand their view and I know that I’ll never be able to change the minds of some folks who think that all folks who work for ATF are evil people who don’t support the Second Amendment. I grew up in a pretty bad neighborhood in Yonkers, New York. The area was very ethnically diverse, and my family was one of about a half-dozen white families left there. The neighborhood had a luncheonette and a gun store—Agramonte Arms—which were among the last of the businesses owned by the same folks who were there when my family moved in. I practically grew up in that gun store and the folks who worked there treated me like family.  I always liked guns, although I’m sure I don’t know as much about them as some of your readers or some of my colleagues at ATF, who could tell you where a gun was made by the proof marks stamped onto it.  I never grew up wanting to be an ATF Agent.  I grew up wanting to be a cop and, hopefully, one day, a homicide detective. I became a cop in New York City at age twenty, and by age twenty-seven, I was a detective. New York had some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, and while I did not agree with them, I saw that the New York criminal justice system was a joke. Criminals pled their cases down; few really violent people went to prison, and those who did rarely stayed there very long. My last state murder case that went to trial was the murder of a four-year-old boy named Joseph Dauphin. After trial, his killer was sentenced to four years in a New York Prison.

In 1997, I was assigned to a federal task force and was assigned to work with ATF on a case against a group called “Sex, Money, Murder,” which was a faction of the Bloods street gang. The first guy we locked up was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to four years in prison. The leader, who was among 51 members we charged, was sentenced to life-plus 105 years in solitary confinement at the Supermax. It was this result that led me to join ATF, not any sort of desire to infringe on the rights of honest Americans who own guns. I think most people who join ATF do so for similar reasons. I worked with DEA Agents, and many were good guys, but their work was largely wire-tap-driven. I hate wiretaps, and I think they’re overused and often abused. I worked with FBI Agents in the task force, too. Some were really good guys, but a lot of them were pompous, arrogant, tight-asses who were almost cult-like in their organizational pride for “The Bureau.” I couldn’t survive that environment. For the most part, the ATF Agents were regular folks who just wanted to put violent people in prison. During my time with ATF, I only know of two who I’d describe as anti-gun: Dave Chipman and Mark Jones (there are a few Mark Joneses – but only one of them fits this bill).  You’d be surprised about how many ATF Agents have a love-hate relationship with the agency. They love the mission of going after armed, violent criminals, but they hate the politics of the agency.

DC: A recurring media meme is that Operation Fast and Furious was a “botched gun sting.” If no attempt was made to track guns once they’d “walked” across the border, how was that not deliberate, with involved ATF personnel and management knowing full well a portion would end up being recovered at violent crime scenes? And how did that not serve the purposes of those demanding stricter gun laws here?

PF: I never understood why some folks in the media called it a “botched gun sting,” just like I never understood why folks called it a “program.” It was a case that spiraled out of control and had absolutely nothing to do with “Wide Receiver,” which was another disaster, but they weren’t linked or part of a program. “Fast and Furious,” which, as you know, was actually called Jacob Chambers et. al, should have been a simple, straw purchase case. The straw purchasers should have been charged early on, and if they were, the gun that killed Brian Terry would have never crossed over the counter of the gun store. Instead, they decided to let the straw purchasers continue to purchase firearms, knowing that the guns were turning up in Mexico because they somehow believed that the traces from Mexico could somehow tie this case into a bigger conspiracy and result in the takedown of a cartel-driven firearms network. The guns crossing the border was deliberate, in that they knew the guns were being traced from locations in Mexico, but they continued to let the sales continue—EVEN AFTER several FFLs said they didn’t want to sell to these straw buyers anymore. Agents from that group and Emory Hurley, the lead prosecutor in the case, met with the FFLs and told them to keep selling to them (ironically, some of those folks are being sued by Mexico for doing exactly what they were told to do by ATF and the USAO).  What is most confusing to me is that for years, we were told that once the firearm crossed the border, the Corpus Delecti (body of the crime) crossed the border the case couldn’t be prosecuted, and then overnight, the same prosecutors are quarterbacking this case, and the guns are purposefully being allowed to cross the border?  It was astounding to me.  I was not privy to what was said at the meetings about the case specifically in either Phoenix or DC, but in the general supervisory meetings that I did attend, there was discussion about how “Operation Fast and Furious” was a justification for the implementation of “Demand Letter #3”—The multiple sale form requirement for rifle purchases in Border States.  Pretty appalling, huh?  Brian Terry dead. Jaime Zapata dead. Countless Mexicans dead. But they implemented a form…

DC: FFLs were pressured to allow what they knew to be “straw purchases” to go through, even over objections at times. You admit in the book how much they’re “needed and depended on.” Care to comment on how ATF’s current “zero tolerance” crackdown on them stifles any “partnership” incentive they have to cooperate beyond what is required?

PF: Just like the old men that worked at Agramonte Arms where I grew up, the FFLs in Phoenix were good people (except one you’ve read about in my book). They called us EVERY time they suspected a straw purchase or a crime was taking place. Ninety percent of the cases in my group came from them.  Of course, there were straw purchases that would occasionally happen that we weren’t called, and sometimes those guns would get smuggled to Mexico, but a straw purchase is an act of deception as well as a crime, and unlike the media, we never blamed the dealers for what they DIDN’T know.  When they called us, we responded and did what cops do.  We stopped the straw buyers, asked probative questions and seized the illegally purchased guns and recommended charges.  ATF’s zero-tolerance crackdown on FFLs is an absolute betrayal of trust, in my opinion, akin to leaving a man behind.  Former ATF Director B. Todd Jones and then Acting Director Tom Brandon used to publicly say, “The FFLs are our first line of defense in the war on gun violence.”  Once they left, the agency fell into the hands of people who were more concerned with activism and less concerned with what most ATF Agents cared about—putting criminals in jail. The current Director, Steve Dettelbach, is a tool for the gun control lobby. He does not have the confidence of the rank and file. For the first time, ATF is having a retention issue as agents leave for other agencies and that scares me.  Who replaces the agents that joined for the right reasons?  Most agents are pro-gun. Will the new ones share those views?

DC: You talk in your book about developing credible evidence only to have U.S. attorneys deny doing anything with it and forbidding further use of intelligence sources.  Why do you believe they did that?

PF: Now, this is the question for the ages. I wish, after reflecting on this for over a decade, that I knew the answer to this question. Besides Phoenix, I have worked with U.S. Attorney’s Offices in New York, South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the USVI.  All were a little different, and some were more aggressive than others, but what I saw in Phoenix shocked me (as you’re seeing in the book). I can only say that I believe that office had a culture of laziness and ineptitude, primarily in its Gun Unit.  We used to joke that they were more afraid of courtrooms than they were of criminals.  After Brian Terry’s death, that joke wasn’t as funny to us.

DC: Before Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s murder was the catalyst for exposing “gunwalking,” the Justice Department made a big media deal announcing significant stimulus money for Project Gunrunner to ostensibly stop firearms trafficking to Mexico. What is your sense that Phoenix ATF management was pressured/motivated to encourage guns to “walk” to produce results and win recognition, favor, and career advancement from HQ?

PF: Again, this is where politics get muddy.  Project Gunrunner was funded due to a push from Senator Bingaman from NM, partially after he sent staff to observe our work at both the “Crossroads of the West” gun show and responding to those calls from FFLs. (Crossroads management, like the FFLs we dealt with there in Phoenix, were good Americans, concerned with public safety—solid folks). That funding was then used to create many offices and to hire ATF Agents. The Yuma ATF office, for example, was created with Gunrunner money but had NO role in Operation Fast and Furious or any of that nonsense.  Blaming Gunrunner was a way for the left to try to say that “Operation Fast and Furious” was somehow tied to “Wide Receiver” and, therefore, was really Bush’s fault.  Phoenix VII, which conceptualized, started, and ended “Fast and Furious,” didn’t even exist until Obama was president. Obama was the captain of the ship; he just didn’t want to own the mistake, so they pointed fingers back in time.

DC: It’s evident from former Attorney General Eric Holder’s contempt of Congress charge that official coverup and stonewalling went to the very top. How high up did the actual operational direction of Fast and Furious go before it was exposed?

PF: The true “operational control” remained in Phoenix, but there was awareness all the way up to Holder, and I have been told (back then) the White House. How much and what they knew, I can’t accurately say because even in Phoenix, those of us who weren’t involved in that case didn’t know they were walking guns until after Brian Terry was murdered and John Dodson called Grassley’s Office.  Most of the agents in Phoenix initially thought John was full of shit because what those folks were doing was so taboo that we just couldn’t fathom that it was happening and that both Bill Newell and George Gillett condoned it.  It was like a shockwave hit the field division, and the reactions were visceral.

DC: What can you tell us about ATF’s Mexican attaché and Mexican law enforcement being deliberately left out of the information loop on “gunwalking”?

PF:  ATF’s Attache was never told about what was happening with Fast and Furious. Originally, the attaché was a guy named Darren Gil.  He and Newell despised one another, and it didn’t help that if Operation Fast and Furious didn’t blow up in their faces that Bill Newell was said to be slated to replace him as the Attache.  They approved sending Bill down there as an SES, whereas Gil was a GS-15 employee.  Gil left Mexico and Carlos Canino was appointed to replace him temporarily.  Carlos is old school (he testified as a whistleblower in the second round of hearings).  Carlos was friends with the Mexican Attorney General, and he was telling her all along that the idea of walking guns was bullshit.  Like most of us, he didn’t believe it.  Carlos came up to Phoenix for the arrests in the “Fast and Furious” case and when he read the Operational Plan and saw that guns actually walked, he literally became physically ill.  He pulled me aside and flew off the handle. He wanted to strangle Newell because he told me “Pete. I’ve been telling the Mexican AG that this is bullshit and that ATF walks guns.  She’s a friend, and she respects us, and now I have to go and tell her that I was wrong.”  As for Mexico, they didn’t tell Mexico, and we even had a Mexican PGR prosecutor who had an office INSIDE of the Phoenix ATF Office that Newell arranged to bring up.  All they had to do was literally knock on his door.  He was eventually thrown out of the office space for misconduct unrelated to F&F.  It pertained to porn on his Mexican government-issued computer… No wonder zero people were prosecuted in Mexico for their role in running straw purchaser networks…

DC: Give us a synopsis of the Max Kingery grenade case and why the U.S. Attorney didn’t want to prosecute it even though you’d handed him irrefutable, solid evidence.

PF: When I inherited the Yuma Group from Rene Jacquez, Jean Baptiste Kingery had previously been referred for prosecution for straw purchasing a few guns, but that case was declined for prosecution by the Phoenix USAO—Tracy Van Buskirk and Emory Hurley.  We were tipped off that he was buying inert grenades at an Army Navy store by the storeowner who found him to be suspicious and when we looked into him we found out he was buying hundreds of grenade parts from many parts of the US. We worked that case for a long, doing extensive surveillance, interviewing family and associates, and finally determining that he was taking the inert grenade parts into Mexico and turning them into IEDs.  We met with Emory and Tracy several times and we believed we had enough to arrest him.  They disagreed, and unlike many of the gun smuggling cases we worked, there were no underlying state charges that we could seek through either the county or state attorney’s offices.  The only possible charge would have been a violation of the AECA if he crossed the border, or an NFA charge if he possessed ALL of the materials needed to make the grenades into live grenades in the USA.  Emory Hurley, the chief of the USAO gun unit, hated this case. He literally said, “The defense could easily say that their client in making those hilarious ‘complaint department-take a number’ novelty desk items” and then put that same language in an email to his boss. He further opined that the case had “No jury appeal.”  When Kingery got caught crossing into Mexico at the “San Luis Rio de Colorado” POE with 114 disassembled grenades hidden in his tire by a CBP x-ray machine, a bomb squad was called, and the port shut down in plain view of the Plaza Bosses, he was interviewed by my agents and HSI Agents (then still under ICE).  He gave a detailed confession, stating that he was making grenades for the Sinaloa cartel for years and taking the AK-47 variant and AR-15 platform rifles and converting them into machineguns in Mexico.  We were told by Emory to let him go and that they’d consider indicting him in a couple of weeks. It was the most disgusting thing I have seen to this day, in 35-plus years of law enforcement.  I even called prosecutors in NYC who were doing a case on the Sinaloans to see if they’d charge him, but they didn’t have venue—but they did say they would if we could find it.  We also called the folks in Mexico (both ATF and Mexican intelligence folks) who we worked with to see if they could charge him so we wouldn’t have to let him walk out the door. Kingery himself asked us to charge him, saying that the cartel knew he was arrested and he’d have difficulty explaining why he wasn’t charged.  We had no choice but to let him go and as you know the book goes into much greater detail on this and his eventual arrest.  Why Emory wouldn’t charge him?  God and Emory only know.

DC: What was the final straw for you to decide you had to become a whistleblower? And what was it about agency whistleblower protections built into the law that made you decide you needed the extra protection of the Senate?

PF: For nearly three years after my arrival in Phoenix, my agents worked with FFLs to stop a lot of guns that were headed to Mexico. Thousands of recoveries and many cases referred for prosecution, about 90% of which were declined or just sat waiting for a decision.  Not guns going to hunters, target shooters, or folks who wanted to exercise their right to bear arms, but cartel assholes who were butchering other human beings… All those declinations and then as a supervisor’s meeting, Bill Newell mentioned that the USAO was pissed off at John Dodson for blowing the whistle and contacting Grassley’s Office, adding I’d steer clear from Dodson if I were you. He’s probably going to get indicted.  That was the straw.  I didn’t even know John Dodson and wasn’t even sure if I had ever met him in passing, but the thought that dozens and dozens of criminals got a pass and they were even contemplating indicting John as a bridge too far.  Way too far.  That following morning, I called Grassley staffer Brian Downey.  I kept the Senate staffers close because I had met Jay Dobyns (ironically, the night I spoke to Downey), and I learned what he went through for blowing the whistle on some ATF managers.  I wasn’t only doing that. I blew the whistle on Federal prosecutors all the way up to the US Attorney himself and folks in Main DOJ.

DC: A lot of the “players” responsible for Fast and Furious, for turning a blind eye to it, and for retaliatory actions, have gone on to either retire or remain in place, with some of the notable ones even promoted. With the slayings of Brian Terry, ICE agent Jaime Zapata, and untold estimate hundreds of Mexican nationals using “walked” guns, how is it no one in authority responsible for engineering ongoing slaughter is behind bars?

PF: That’s a good question. I do know that the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General investigated them and they had the power to recommend charges, but that would require DOJ to prosecute the case.  People facing jail time speak up. It was easier to bury them in jobs elsewhere.  Some folks were actually fired, but the ones with the bloodiest hands remained—some are still there.

DC: The Arms Export Control Act mandates any person who willfully violates its provisions “shall upon conviction be fined for each violation not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both,” and further includes provisions for “principals” who “induce” or “willfully cause” offenses. How does that not apply to Fast and Furious?

PF: It should have. Again, it would have had to be prosecuted by the DOJ, and I’ve learned that the DOJ does what it wants, and it crushes those who dissent or speak up.

I could have gone on with plenty more questions based on all the reporting Vanderboegh had done, but the assignment here was to conduct an interview, not write a book. Speaking of that, I’ll come back and update this report with a link to my review of Forcellis’ The Deadly Path when it’s been posted.

Spoiler alert: Buy it.

About David Codrea:

David Codrea is the winner of multiple journalist awards for investigating/defending the RKBA and a long-time gun owner rights advocate who defiantly challenges the folly of citizen disarmament. He blogs at “The War on Guns: Notes from the Resistance,” is a regularly featured contributor to Firearms News, and posts on Twitter: @dcodrea and Facebook.

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