ATF’s Fast and Furious Seems Colored With Shades of Iran/Contra Scandal

Congressional Inquiry Raising Specter of Spooks in the Soup

The acting head of ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) has seemingly blown the cover of both DEA and FBI informant operations in order to spare his own neck and to deflect blame away from a badly flawed operation undertaken by his own agency.

In doing so, ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson has also left open the door to the house of mirrors that always comes into play when U.S. interests intersect with foreign affairs.

The operation that has put Melson in the hot seat before Congress is known as Fast and Furious, which was launched in October 2009 as an offshoot of Project Gunrunner — ATF’s larger effort to stem the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico

However, Fast and Furious actually undermined the goal of Project Gunrunner by allowing some 2,000 or more firearms illegally purchased in the U.S. to “walk” (or be smuggled under ATF’s watch) across the border in a supposed effort by the federal law enforcement agency to target the kingpins behind Mexico’s narco-gun-running enterprises, ATF whistleblowers contend.

Two of the guns linked to the Fast and Furious operation allegedly were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was shot to death by Mexican border marauders in Arizona late last year. The whistelblower revelations about Fast and Furious have since sparked Congressional inquiries.

In a letter sent on July 5 to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, two Republican members of Congress from the committees probing Fast and Furious made startling allegations in the wake of what they say was an interview of ATF’s Melson conducted by “both Republican and and Democratic staff.”

The letter was drafted by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform; and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.

The revelation from that letter of greatest significance:

Specifically, we have very real indications from several sources that some of the gun trafficking “higher-ups” that the ATF sought to identify [via Fast and Furious] were already known to other agencies and may have been paid as informants. The Acting Director [Melson] said that ATF was kept in the dark about certain activities of other agencies, including DEA and FBI. [Emphasis added.]

Mr. Melson said that he learned from ATF agents in the field that information obtained by these agencies [DEA, FBI and “other agencies”] could have had a material impact on the Fast and Furious investigation as far back as late 2009 or early 2010. After learning about the possible role of DEA and FBI [and “other agencies”], he testified that he reported this information in April 2011 to the Acting Inspector General and directly to then-Acting Deputy Attorney General James Cole on June 16th, 2011.

The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayers dollars [in the form of informant payments] from other agencies may have financed those engaging in such activities.

… It is one thing to argue that the ends justify the means in an attempt to defend a policy that puts building a big case ahead of stopping known criminals from getting guns. Yet it is a much more serious matter to conceal from Congress the possible involvement of other agencies in identifying and maybe even working with the same criminals that Operation Fast and Furious was trying to identify. …. [The entire letter can be found at this link.]

What the letter from Issa and Grassley is alleging, simply put, is that multiple U.S. agencies were employing as informants and assets members of Mexican drug organizations who were responsible for importing into their nation thousands of weapons from the U.S., leading to more than 40,000 homicides in Mexico’s drug war since late 2006.

The letter, by its wording, makes clear that the complicit U.S. agencies include FBI and DEA, but it also seems to make clear that “other agencies” might also be involved in the game. And also part of this game was ATF, which, via Fast and Furious, was allowing thousands of guns to be smuggled across the U.S. border into Mexico as part of a supposed plan to identify “higher-ups” in Mexican drug organizations who were responsible for the illegal weapons trade. And, as it turns out, those responsible, in some cases, were the very individuals being employed as informants and assets by other U.S. agencies.

Connecting flight

And in a strange twist of fate, one of the “higher-ups” in the Mexican narco-trafficking world, who recently claimed to be a U.S. government informant, is now pending trial in federal court in Chicago.

Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia — one of the purported top leaders of the Sinaloa drug-trafficking organization — a leading Mexican-based importer of weapons and exporter of drugs. Zambada Niebla was arrested in Mexico in March 2009 and in February 2010 extradited to the United States to stand trial on narco-trafficking-related charges.

The indictment pending against Zambada Niebla claims he served as the “logistical coordinator” for the “cartel,” helping to oversee an operation that imported into the U.S. “multi-ton quantities of cocaine … using various means, including but not limited to, Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, private aircraft … buses, rail cars, tractor trailers, and automobiles.”

Zambada Niebla also claims be an asset of the U.S. government. His allegation is laid out in a two-page court pleading filed in late March with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. The pleading asserts that Zambada Niebla was working with “public authority” “on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”); and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”); and the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”).

Interestingly, in addition to the narco-trafficking charges pending against him in Chicago, Zambada Niebla also stands accused of seeking to smuggle weapons into Mexico for the Sinaloa organization.

“Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla sought to obtain weapons from the United States … and discussed the use of violence…,” U.S. government court pleadings in Zambada Niebla’s case state.

Zambada Niebla also is linked to alleged Sinaloa organization money-launderer Pedro Alfonso Alatorre Damy via a Gulfstream II jet (tail number N987SA) that crashed in Mexico in late 2007 with some four tons of cocaine onboard.

That aircraft was allegedly purchased with Sinaloa organization drug money laundered through Alatorre Damy’s casa de cambio business and a U.S. bank. And that same aircraft was reportedly suspected of being used previously as part of the CIA’s “terrorist” rendition program, according to media reports and an investigation spearheaded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In addition, the Gulfstream II was purchased less than two weeks before it crashed in Mexico by a duo that included a U.S. government operative who allegedly had done past contract work for a variety of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, according to a known CIA asset (Baruch Vega) who is identified as such in public court records. The four tons of cocaine onboard of the Gulfstream II at the time of its crash landing, according Vega, were purchased in Colombia via a syndicate that included a Colombian narco-trafficker named Nelson Urrego, who, according to Panamanian press reports and Vega, is a U.S. government (CIA) asset.

[For more more details on the Gulfstream II story and connections, read Narco News’s past coverage at this link.]

And now, one of the top players in the Sinaloa drug organization, who, according to the U.S. government, managed logistics for the criminal organization — a job that entailed overseeing the purchase of aircraft for drug smuggling activities, as well as weapons for enforcement activities — now claims to have been actively cooperating with several U.S. law enforcement agencies since at least 2004.

So once again, the DEA and FBI appear in the context of employing high-level narco-traffickers as informants and/or assets. And in the background of such intrigue, always, overseas, as in the Gulfstream II case, is the CIA, which trumps every other U.S. agency when it comes to operations in a foreign land.

A former CIA counterintelligence officer explained how it works as follows, in a recent interview with Narco News:

It’s … true that sometimes agents who do narcotics work [like DEA agents] may also do things that are at the same time of interest to the CIA in terms of intelligence collection.

If CIA and DEA are working the same person, collecting information, the CIA will get the nod [ultimate control] that’s normal. In the field [overseas] the CIA trumps everyone.

… The system is designed so that agencies do not walk over each other’s assets [or informants], so you don’t have two agencies going after the same people for different reasons [DEA to bust them for narco-trafficking and CIA to use them as intelligence assets, for example]. [In those cases, though] it is CIA that gets the preference; CIA is the mother god.

Wacko, Barroom Commandos

When it comes to prime intelligence targets, they don’t come much better than the leaders of Mexican drug organizations, who have their tentacles planted deep inside Latin American governments due to the corrupt reach of the drug trade. So it is not unreasonable to suspect that part of the reason that ATF’s Fast and Furious makes no sense in terms of a law enforcement operation is because it wasn’t one at all.

In fact, it may well have been co-opted and trumped by a covert U.S. intelligence agency operation, such as one run by CIA, that is shielded even from most members of Congress — possibly even the White House, if it was launched under a prior administration and parts of it have since run off the tracks on their own.

As the former CIA counterintelligence officer said: “Is there deviation [from the norm, in terms of CIA operations]? Yes. Stuff happens, but that’s because there was deviation; but it’s not authorized.”

In any event, it’s not likely that even the Attorney General of the U.S. could discuss publicly the specifics of such an intelligence operation, authorized or not, without facing the real threat of being accused of violating national security laws — such is the power of the U.S. intelligence community over even law enforcement and the courts in this nation.

As for Zambada Niebla, it is worth noting that shortly after he filed his motion in federal court outing himself as a U.S. informant, his attorneys filed separate pleadings alleging that he is being held improperly in solitary confinement, with all communications, except with his attorneys, essentially cut off by the very government he claims to have assisted.

From those pleadings, filed on June 27:

Vicente [Zambada Niebla] contends that the sum of the conditions under which he is being held in pre-trial detention violates the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

He is prohibited from speaking to any other inmates at any time and for any purpose. Vicente is prohibited from speaking to anyone except his counselor and those Bureau of Prisons personnel above the rank of lieutenant. Neither his counselor nor BOP personnel above the rank of lieutenant are regularly on his floor at the [Chicago Metropolitan Detention Center’s Special Housing Unit].

In the entire period of his pre-trial detention [since March 2011], he has not seen sunlight or breathed fresh air. In contrast, he had outdoor exercise every day in a super maximum security facility in Mexico.

Now, it’s not likely anyone is going to feel pity for Zambada Niebla, who stands accused of being a key player in one of the most ruthless narco-trafficking organizations in Mexico — though it is important to note, for the purposes of the U.S. justice system, he stands accused, but not yet convicted.

However, what should be a bit unsettling, even to those who have no empathy for someone like Zambada Niebla, is the possibility that he is telling the truth about being a U.S. government informant/asset, and that his treatment in jail is, in fact, designed to suppress that truth.

And with the stakes this high, in terms of the drug war in Mexico and the billions of dollars funding it, as well as the Congressional scrutiny now focused on Fast and Furious in Congress, can it be completely ruled out that Zambada Niebla might well be deemed a messenger worth silencing?

Former deep undercover DEA agent Mike Levine, who has extensive experience working in Latin America, offers his take on ATF’s Fast and Furious, a view that is grounded in first-hand knowledge of the drug war and its sordid history:

… Running guns into Mexico into the hands of criminals? There can be no objective to this but death, and lots of it.

The events in Operation Fast and Furious are eerily identical to those surrounding the arrest of General Ramon Guillen Davila, a CIA asset who was [indicted for] smuggling a ton of cocaine into the US [in] 1996, in what was described as an intelligence gathering operation, the problem being that no intelligence was ever gathered and that the ton was only one of many other similar shipments of cocaine that actually hit the streets of the U.S. by way of CIA agents.

If I were a criminal profiler, it wouldn't take much to identify a CIA pattern here [with Fast and Furious]: A wacko, barroom commando, illegal operation that makes no sense whatsoever, run outside the control of law enforcement.

Stay tuned….

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