New Head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix

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We’ll talk to Thomas Atteberry, the newly appointed Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Phoenix Field Division about what his focus is as SAC in Phoenix as well as what went wrong and the lessons learned in the Operation Fast and Furious…

Jose Cárdenas: Operation Fast and Furious allowed illegal gun purchases from the U.S. To pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers in hopes of tracking the weapons to the Mexican drug cartels. The bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives ATF phoenix's field office ran the operation. The agency lost track of thousands of firearms, many of which have been linked to crimes, including the fatal shooting of border patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010. Here with me to talk about what happened in the operation is Thomas Atteberry, the new special in charge of the phoenix ATF. Welcome to "Horizonte."

Thomas Atteberry: Thank you, José. Thank you for having me on the show.

Jose Cardenas: Welcome to Arizona. You have been here about a year as I understand it.

Thomas Atteberry: Yes, sir. I arrived here in March of 2011 on detail as the assistant special agent in charge and this January of 2012 I was promoted to special agent in charge of the Phoenix Field Division.

Jose Cárdenas: We want to talk about operation fast and furious but to get a sense of the kinds of things that we are talking about and the munition that is are going to the cartels we have some video showing the results of a recent raid involving the cartel so tell us a little bit about what we are looking at right now.

Thomas Atteberry: We would refer to these as AK 47's. These are weapons of choice with the cartels are looking for, both at-47's, AR 15s and 50 cals is what ATF is seen in the four board states, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Texas as far as what the cartels are trying to get. They come to the United States to get their weapons because it's so easy to get guns here.

Jose Cardenas: But I don't think anybody has suggested except prance in some crazy conspiracy theories that anybody acted with ill intentions in operation fast and furious or its predecessors, operation wide receiver during the Bush Administration. But things went wrong.

Thomas Atteberry: Yeah.

Jose Cardenas: Let's start first, though, talking about the general approach of the ATF to dealing with the problem of guns going south of the border and then what operation fast and furious was.

Thomas Atteberry: Well, you are exactly right. I think the intentions of the investigation were good. However, the tactics and the law enforcement techniques that were used were flawed. I think there was a lack of leadership and oversight and it was between a group of small people within our organization that made mistakes, and also the U.S. Attorney's office. That is not the way our agency operates. We do not walk guns. Thousands of men and women that carry the atf badge in the united states, they do everything they can to protect the public and reduce violent crime by stopping weapons and intercepting them before they would go into the hands of violent criminals or, in this case, south of the border to the cartels. Mistakes were made in this case. Our agency has come out and admitted that. There's an ongoing office of inspector general investigation that's going on right now and we are hoping for that report to be coming out probably sometime this summer or early fall.

Jose Cardenas: Well, let's talk about what you would normally do, setting aside the operations I referred to, to stop the flow of guns. One of the problems is straw buyers. So what would be the normal law enforcement techniques you would use to deal with that?

Thomas Atteberry: Firearms are like no other thing. It's a legal commodity. Unlike narcotics that are always illegal firearms are a legal commodity. There's a fine line when ATF works in investigation between protecting somebody's second amendment rights, if they can have firearms, as opposed to people going into gun stores, straw purchasing, filling out paperwork and buying guns on behalf of another person who is prohibited. It's very hard to combat. A lot of times we have to have good rapport and good relations with the firearms dealers and the industry members which is one of the things we are trying to develop even more of in Arizona and the Phoenix field division so that those dealers will call us and let us know if they see red flags, and something is gone amiss.

Jose Cardenas: A red flag would be what? Unusually large number of weapons being purchased?

Thomas Atteberry: Somebody coming in, trying to buy an unusual large amount of weapons. In this case, ak-47 or ar-15's and we are on the border. We are not in Tennessee. So it raises the suspicions even more.

Jose Cardenas: In and of itself the purchase is not a crime?

Thomas Atteberry: No, it's not.

Jose Cardenas: Regardless of the number of weapons?

Thomas Atteberry: No, it is not.

Jose Cardenas: You launch an investigation.

Thomas Atteberry: We would launch an investigation and look at who these people are. Can they afford these weapons? Do they own a firing range? What are they doing with these guns? In cases in recent past, we have gotten information whether straw purchasers, that's given us time to work the investigation, and then intercept the weapons and seize them and people before they went to Mexico and before the guns got smuggled down there and killed anybody.

Jose Cardenas: Given that process, do we know for sure that the weapons that ultimately were used or the weapon that was ultimately used to kill the border patrol agent would have been stopped? That they wouldn't have, were certain they wouldn't have crossed the border if things had been done per procedure?

Thomas Atteberry: It's hard to speculate on that. I can't say that we are for sure that it was going to do that. It is so easy to get guns in the united states, and the cartels have so much money and so much reach into the united states, it's almost impossible to stop that. But what we need to do when we know about something going on and when we know there are straw purchasers we need to jump on it quickly. It's in the matter of public safety as opposed to making a case. We have to get on it and it's public safety, interdict the weapons and arrest these people and whether we charge them in the federal courts or in the state courts, we have to protect the good people of Arizona and make sure this doesn't happen again. If we know about it. That's when we need to get on it.

Jose Cardenas: As I understand it the motivation for the gun walking that was done, both under operation wide receiver in the bush administration and fast and furious, was a sense that the focus had been too much on the small fry, so to speak, and that you wanted to be able to, not you, say you, I mean the royal you. To be able to track these guns to the cartel leaders in Mexico and arrest them there.

Thomas Atteberry: Again, good intentions, flawed techniques. José, I will points out that we as an agency do not have a firearms trafficking statute. So it's almost like a carpenter without a hammer or nails when we are working these types of trafficking cases. As opposed to like the FBI has terrorism statutes or DEA has narcotics trafficking statutes. ATF does not have a trafficking statute so we have to rely on charging these people with paper violations when they are straw purchasers or if they are illegal aliens we can charge them that way. In possession of a firearm. Or obviously, violent felons with guns or gang members or things like that.

Jose Cardenas: So if somebody doesn't have a record, is here legally, fills out all the paperwork and buys 40 weapons, does that -- there's nothing you can do about it?

Thomas Atteberry: Well, it's a legal purchase. If the person is not prohibited, they should be able to have all the guns they want. What will trigger on the four Border States because of that multiple sale of assault-type weapons are long guns or rifles is that the dealer is required to make a multiple-sale report to the ATF. And typically what we will do then is go out and talk to that person. What are they doing with these guns?

Jose Cardenas: Is it legal to transfer them south of the border?
Thomas Atteberry: It's not.

Jose Cardenas: That would be the crime then.

Thomas Atteberry: Yes.

Jose Cardenas: If you interdicted them at the border that's what they would be charged with?

Thomas Atteberry: Yes.

Jose Cardenas: Earlier you said mistakes were made both by people in the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's office. What were the mistakes made by ATF?

Well, the mistakes were made, we were following guns. A lot of times they were being lost in surveillances or losing track of the weapons. We can't do that. When we know something and we see straw purchase, going on we have to move in and stop it right away. We can't be following it for days upon days to see where they are going to end up. Again, these are firearms. And again, the old adage is firearms don't kill people, bad people with firearms kill people. We are on the border. We are in Arizona. We are not in the Midwest. We know what's going on. We know the cartels are doing everything they can to get these weapons of choice for the drug wars that are going on south of the united states. We have to do everything we can to communicate with the other four border divisions and our partners in Mexico to make sure that we are interdicting these guns if we know something is amiss.

Jose Cardenas: And you referenced also the U.S. Attorney's office. What mistakes were made there?

Thomas Atteberry: Without getting much into it, I don't think that the agents were given the proper direction and guidance on as far as reasonable suspicion and making car stops and being able to seize the weapons. We have changed that now. We have a very good open relationship and dialogue with the U.S. Attorney's office. And we are communicating more on what needs to be done as well as communicating very much with our partners in Mexico and the other four border divisions.
Jose Cardenas: Now, what I have read, though, about fast and furious, didn't indicate there was an education problem at all. That decision was made, that the guns were going to be allowed to be walked. That you had agents who objected to that. But they were told this is the policy and this is how it's going to be done.

Thomas Atteberry: Yeah. There were whistle blowers that came forward and again, based on the OIG investigation that's ongoing, I really can't get into that but what I can tell you is that we are cooperating fully with the department of justice, office of inspector general and also senator Grassley and congressman Issa's office to make sure everything that they need to do, their inquiry and their investigation is provided to them by ATF. As I mentioned earlier in the show, José, OIG report will in come out in summer, early fall and they will make recommendations and we will move front there. The changes that we have made to ensure that these mistakes are never made again is we have brought in new leadership in the Phoenix field division. I have two new assistance the, one is the former attaché from Mexico city and I have brought in experienced supervisors to run the groups here in phoenix to ensure we are not cutting corners and we are doing things by the numbers and by the books to protect the people of Arizona.

Jose Cardenas: One of the big concerns with the operation was the fact that or the complaints from the Mexican authorities that they were not brought into the process, that they didn't know what was going on.

Thomas Atteberry: Right. And they weren't. There was no communication. And that's all changed. We are constantly on the phone with our agents in the Mexico country office, in the embassy in Mexico city, to make sure they need critical intelligence or information it's passed to them immediately as well as to our agents in California, Texas, and New Mexico.

Jose Cardenas: So you have talked about some of the changes you have made. Other changes that are going on right now to deal with these issues and to enhance the effectiveness of your office.

Thomas Atteberry: Sure. We had mandatory training for every single agent in our field division that covers not only Arizona but New Mexico. We had southwest border firearms training where we brought in the top instructors from ATF and around the country to go over techniques that we use in interdicting these weapons and reinforcing the training that agents are taught at the ATF academy on how to work firearms trafficking cases. Again, mistakes were made by a small amount of people. This is not, this case should not broad brush the excellent work that ATF does. We are on the forefront of violent crime throughout the nation. Whether it's cartels, home invaders, murderers, armed robbers, convicted felons, bikers, we are work the worst of the worst in ATF and we are looked at by the department of justice as the violent crime agency and we have a very tough mission walking a fine line with the federal firearms violations.

Jose Cardenas: Let's talk very quickly about a recent jury verdict that came out, the bombing in Scottsdale. Your agency played a lead role in the investigation.

Thomas Atteberry: Thank you for bringing that up. That case exemplified the tenacity and ‘never die' attitude of our agents. They worked on that case for eight years. And yesterday the sentencing of Dennis Mahon was 40 years in federal prison, and it just shows that how we go about our investigations and our criminal cases. The agents are not going to give up. And working firearms explosives and arson investigations is our forte, our bread and butter and these agents did a fantastic job. Not only working undercover but also utilizing informants and evidence from the scene of the crime. And Mr. Logan was injured, thank god he was not killed. It was a very serious bombing incident. But the agents did a fantastic job and it ended in a guilty verdict and a lengthy sentence.

Jose Cardenas: Congratulations on that result and again welcome to Arizona, Mr. Atteberry. Thanks for joining us on "Horizonte."

Thomas Atteberry: Thank you, José.

Thomas Atteberry:Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Phoenix Field Division

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