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Key figure in ATF's Gunrunner operation cooperating in congressional inquiry

George Gillett Jr. is expected to reveal crucial information about how a federal operation allowed weapons from the U.S. to pass into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.

April 09, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • A U.S. Border Patrol agent passes photos of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry during a memorial service in Tucson, Ariz. Two guns involved in the Gunrunner operation were found at the scene of a shootout in southern Arizona in December in which Terry was killed.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent passes photos of slain Border Patrol agent Brian… (John Moore / AFP/Getty Images )

A key leader in the federal law enforcement operation suspected of allowing high-powered assault weapons to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels is now cooperating with congressional investigators, providing a crucial new window into the controversial operation known as Project Gunrunner.

George Gillett Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' field office in Phoenix, has met with congressional investigators and is expected to provide crucial information about how dozens of U.S. guns may have been transported with the ATF's knowledge into Mexico. Agents say Gillett provided much of the day-to-day oversight of the Gunrunner operation.

Two guns involved in the operation were found at the scene of a shootout in southern Arizona in December in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Brian Terry was killed, prompting at least three inquiries on Capitol Hill.

ATF officials have acknowledged that at least 195 weapons sold under the investigation have been recovered in Mexico, traced as a matter of routine via serial numbers after their recovery from crime scenes, arrests and searches.

Several ATF agents who objected to the gun transfers but were rebuffed by their supervisors already have provided extensive information to Congress and in interviews with The Times.

Gillett, who supervised the group running the Arizona component of Project Gunrunner, known as "Fast and Furious," initially dismissed those concerns and previously ordered ATF agents to avoid all communications with whistle-blowers who were cooperating with the congressional inquiries, several agents said in interviews.

Now, though, Gillett is talking. In a letter Friday to ATF management, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, disclosed that Gillett was cooperating with a congressional inquiry and had participated in two preliminary meetings with investigators.

Gillett, who was named to the Phoenix field office's No. 2 post in June 2008, previously served as an ATF field supervisor in Los Angeles.

After repeated refusals by the ATF and the Justice Department to provide detailed information about the conduct of the Gunrunner investigation and how the guns found at the scene of Terry's death got into criminal hands, Gillett's decision to come forward is crucial, agency sources said.

Vince Cefalu, an ATF agent in California who says he has suffered retaliation for criticizing ATF management in another case, said Gillett would be able to provide crucial information on who approved the operation. He will also be able to say to what degree ATF supervisors deliberately allowed guns bought by known "straw purchasers," acting on behalf of Mexican drug cartels, to be "walked" into Mexico under the eyes of ATF agents in an attempt to arrest higher-level suspects, Cefalu said.

ATF officials acknowledge they were monitoring the sale of guns to suspect buyers but say they did not deliberately allow any guns into Mexico — an assertion contradicted by several ATF agents and the agency's policy document.

Gillett "has the key to all the skeletons in the closet. You can rest assured he's going to be pointing the finger at everybody but himself," Cefalu said. "I should also add that I'm disgusted by the fact that only to protect himself is he coming forward. We came forward when we didn't have to, and we've taken a beating for it. He's coming forward with a lawyer, and he's going to glide through it with some kind of immunity."

Gillett could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Peter Noone, said he could not discuss the case. In response to questions, he confirmed that Gillett had received death threats before making the decision to cooperate.

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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