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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

ATF Boondoggle Echoes ‘Fast & Furious’

(CN) - Poor planning and a lack of concern for public safety are to blame for operation in Arizona that allowed a suspected arms smuggler to take grenade parts into Mexico, the Office of the Inspector General said Thursday.

The investigation of Jean Baptiste Kingery, published in redacted form Thursday, bears many similarities to the much-criticized "Operation Fast and Furious," executed by the Phoenix field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm.

In both cases, ATF agents knowingly allowed firearms purchased illegally in the United States to be unlawfully transferred to third parties and transported into Mexico, in hopes that the guns would lead them to the cartel leaders who purchased them.

As in Fast and Furious, where ATF-marked weapons turned up at the scene of the 2010 firefight in Arizona that resulted in the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, ATF-marked live grenades used for the Kingery investigation were recovered after a 2011 shootout between Mexican soldiers and members of a drug cartel, according to a redacted review of the investigation.

ATF agents in Yuma began investigating Kingery, a U.S. citizen, in 2008 based on his purchase an AK-47 rifle. Agents in Phoenix later learned that Kingery had ordered a large number or grenade components from a military-surplus dealer, and they suspected that he was planning to use the components to make live grenades for drug cartels in Mexico.

The agency devised a plan to intercept delivery of the components, secretly mark the grenade parts, and allow them to go as planned to Kingery's mother's house in Yuma. They then planned to track the parts to their final destinations, which agents suspected would be in the hands of cartel members.

After marking up two deliveries over four months, agents attempted to watch Kingery's moves, even installing a remotely monitored camera on a pole outside his mother's house. They also worked with Mexican law enforcement to keep an eye on Kingery, but lost sight of him until he was arrested by Customs and Border Patrol in 2010 while attempting to cross into Mexico from Arizona.

Agents found 114 grenade hulls, 114 fuses and 2000 rounds of ammunition hidden in his vehicle.

ATF and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigators interviewed Kingery several times but eventually let him go without charges. According to the OIG's review, assistant attorneys general from the Arizona said they declined to charge Kingery because the ATF had wanted to use him as an informant.

ATF agents deny this. In any case, agents lost track of Kingery again but he was arrested in Mexico in 2011 where he is now being prosecuted for violating organized-crime laws.

The case against him in Arizona was transferred to the Central District of California.

"The operation itself was poorly planned and executed," the OIG's review states. "ATF agents proceeded with the marking and surveillance operation without first developing a written operations plan that described how the activities would be conducted."

One of the biggest problems with the operation, according to the review, was a lack of sharing and communication between the ATF and ICE.

"The agents did not similarly share information with ICE, the agency with jurisdiction over export offenses, or CPB, the agency responsible for conducting inspections at the ports of entry," the review states. "Compounding these problems was the fact that the agents knew ATF did not have sufficient resources to conduct post-delivery surveillance of Kingery to learn when he let his mother's residence and where he was going. According to agents, ATF maintained only sporadic surveillance of the residence for a single day. Thus, even if the Mexican authorities had personnel available, it was highly unlikely ATF would have been able to notify them about when and where Kingery might cross the border. Under these circumstances, it is hard surprising that Kingery was able to enter and returned from Mexico on two occasions within three weeks of taking delivery of the marked munitions."

The parallels between the Kingery case and Operation Fast and Furious were not lost on the OIG, which reviewed the latter program in a 2012.

"Both were relatively complex investigations with international implications that suffered from inadequate resources being devoted to meet the cases' objectives, poor supervision by ATF field division supervisors, and insufficient oversight at the U.S. Attorney's Office," the OIG's report states. "Prosecutors and agents in both investigations also failed to insist on overt enforcement action against the subjects of the investigations when there was sufficient evidence to do so. Our reviews of both cases concluded that, in failing to act, they did not adequately consider the risk to public safety in the United States and Mexico created by the subjects' illegal activities."

Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in an Oct. 28 letter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz that the Justice Department began taking "decisive, extensive action to address these flaws" in early 2011.

Neither the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix nor the ATF Field Office there immediately returned a request for comment on Thursday.

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