Pubdate: Sun, 01 Apr 2012
Source: Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, AZ)
Copyright: 2012 Arizona Daily Star
Author: Tim Steller


Top targets, in reality, were FBI informants, but ATF didn't know

Even before hundreds of guns went across the border as part of
Operation Fast and Furious, an interagency communication gap had left
the investigation doomed, recently released information suggests.

Unknown to the ATF agents leading the probe, the top possible targets
of their investigation were working as FBI informants and were
essentially "unindictable," according to congressional investigators
and documents connected to the case.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched the
investigation planning to go beyond arresting "straw buyers" and take
down a whole cross-border gun-running ring. But it could never have
reached its top targets, two brothers named Miramontes from the El
Paso area, because they were protected "national security assets,"
says a Feb. 1 memo by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and U.S. Sen.
Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

The revelation speaks to a broader issue especially pertinent in the
border region, some current and former federal agents say: The area is
rife with agencies working organized-crime investigations, and
sometimes their interests conflict.

"Information sharing among agencies - it's ridiculous," said Brandon
Judd, head of the Tucson-Sector local of the Border Patrol agents
union. "People guard their intel like it's gold."

In this case, guarding information may have had fatal consequences for
a Southern Arizona Border Patrol agent. Brian Terry was killed on Dec.
14, 2010, west of Rio Rico in a gunfight with bandits, at least two of
whom were armed with weapons bought by a low-level target of Operation
Fast and Furious in January 2010.

During the investigation, ATF agents allowed straw buyers in the
Phoenix area to buy and transfer up to about 2,000 weapons intended
for Mexican criminal groups.

Terry's family spoke out in a statement issued Wednesday:

"Could have been avoided"

"One can only imagine that if the FBI, DEA and U.S. attorney personnel
had only shared their information with ATF agents that the Miramontes
brothers were FBI informants, then the entire Fast and Furious debacle
could have been avoided," the statement says.

Operation Fast and Furious began in October 2009, as agents in the
ATF's Phoenix office started tracking people they suspected of being
straw purchasers - that is, people who used their own clean
backgrounds to buy weapons for criminal groups.

But in December that year, Drug Enforcement Administration agents in
Phoenix realized they and the ATF were targeting the same person,
Manuel Celis-Acosta, in separate investigations.

ATF agents viewed Celis-Acosta as the ringleader of a growing group of
straw buyers monitored in Operation Fast an Furious, a man who would
make requests for firearms and provide the money to buy them. DEA
agents said he had also come up in a drug-trafficking case they were
working on in Phoenix using a wiretap.

ATF and DEA agents met in Phoenix on Dec. 15 that year to discuss
their investigations and emerged with an agreement to cooperate in the
wiretap probe. What ATF didn't learn is that the men Celis-Acosta
answered to were the Miramontes brothers from the El Paso area, says a
memo by Issa and Grassley, who are leading a congressional
investigation into Operation Fast and Furious.

In a March 14, 2012, letter to Issa and Grassley, the attorney for
David Voth, the ATF supervisor who oversaw the operation, alleges that
DEA deliberately withheld that connection at the Dec. 15, 2009, meeting.

DEA did "inform the FBI of that link, but neither the DEA nor the FBI
informed the ATF of that link," wrote attorney Joshua Levy.

Neither FBI nor DEA spokespeople responded to requests for

As it was, ATF agents didn't learn the identity of Celis-Acosta's
superiors, the Miramontes brothers, until they indicted Celis-Acosta
and brought him in for questioning in January 2011. The news dismayed

James Needles, then the assistant special agent in charge of ATF's
Phoenix office, described the discovery that their targets were FBI
informants as "a major disappointment," says the memo by Issa and Grassley.

Celis-Acosta is fighting the charges against him as well as the
disclosures made by the congressional investigation, said his
attorney, Adrian Fontes.

"Congressman Issa and Senator Grassley would rather score political
points than uphold the principles of the Constitution," Fontes said.

Overlapping common

In the border region, such overlapping investigations are common, as
an alphabet soup of agencies - ICE, FBI, CBP, DEA, ATF, etc. -
investigate drug traffickers, people smugglers, gun runners and money
launderers, say present and retired federal agents.

"As you're working toward a higher level, it's inevitable that you're
going to run across another agency's interests or investigations,"
said Tony Coulson, who headed the Tucson DEA office until his
retirement in 2010. "That's a good thing. It means we're on the right

Generally, when agencies find they are investigating the same people,
or investigating another agency's informants, they are able to meet
and come up with a satisfactory way forward, he said.

"It almost always works out," Coulson said, though he noted that,
"Sometimes folks aren't happy."

Another retired border agent, Terry Nelson, says the Fast and Furious
debacle underscores a deeper problem. Nelson, who retired in 2005
after long stints in the Customs Service and Border Patrol, said these
sorts of conflicts are inherent parts of the way the United States
fights drugs.

The agencies know they can't actually "win" the drug war, so they
often fight for "attaboys" and "gold stars," even if it means acing
out another agency, said Nelson, who now acts as a spokesman for a
group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

"The whole thing is absurd," Nelson said.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at

CHronology of a doomed investigation

October 2009: ATF launches Operation Fast and Furious, an
investigation of people buying guns in the Phoenix area for criminal
groups in Mexico.

December 2009: DEA and ATF agents meet to discuss a shared target of
different investigations, Manuel Celis-Acosta, but don't share that
his superiors were working as FBI informants.

January 2010: Investigative target Jaime Avila buys three AK-47 style
rifles from Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale.

December 2010: U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry is shot and killed
west of Rio Rico by a group of bandits, and two of the rifles bought
by Avila are found at the scene.

January 2011: Operation Fast and Furious ends with the indictment of
20 people and numerous arrests. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley begins
investigating an ATF whistle-blower's claim that agents allowed
hundreds of weapons loose during the investigation.

February 2011: Celis-Acosta is arrested, and ATF agents are
disappointed to learn that the people they suspect are his "cartel
contacts" are working as protected FBI informants.