Book claims feds had ties to killers of Ariz. border agent

By Dennis Wagner The Republic | Thu Dec 26, 2013 7:33 AM

A federal agent who exposed the Justice Department’s flawed gun-trafficking investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious says the FBI played a key role in events leading to the 2010 murder near Nogales, Ariz., of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

John Dodson, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, contends that the bandits who killed Terry were working for FBI operatives and were sent to the border to do a drug rip-off using intelligence from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“I don’t think the (FBI) assets were part of the rip-off crew,” Dodson said. “I think they were directing the rip crew.”

Dodson’s comments to The Arizona Republic amplify assertions he made in his recently released book, “The Unarmed Truth,” about his role as a whistle-blower in the Fast and Furious debacle.

Terry belonged to an elite Border Patrol tactical team sent to a remote area known as Peck Canyon, roughly a dozen miles northwest of Nogales, where violence had escalated because criminal gangs were stealing narcotics from drug runners known as mules. He was slain in a shootout with several bandits. Two assault-type rifles found at the scene were subsequently traced to Fast and Furious.

The operation, based in Phoenix, was launched in 2009 to identify and prosecute drug lords, but instead allowed guns to be “walked” into the hands of Mexican criminals. ATF agents encouraged licensed firearms dealers in Arizona to sell more than 2,000 weapons to known “straw buyers” who were working for cartels. Instead of arresting suspects immediately, surveillance agents took notes and let them disappear with the guns.

After the Terry slaying and an attempted cover-up within the Justice Department, Dodson provided evidence and testimony to Congress. His revelations, later verified by an Office of the Inspector General’s report, ignited a national scandal over Fast and Furious that resulted in a congressional contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder and the replacement of top ATF and Justice Department officials.

In his book, Dodson uses cautious language to characterize his account of circumstances surrounding Terry’s death, saying the information is based on firsthand knowledge, personal opinion and press reports. He asserts that the DEA had information about, and may have orchestrated, a large drug shipment through Peck Canyon that December night. He alleges that DEA agents shared that intelligence with FBI counterparts, who advised criminal informants from another cartel that the load would be “theirs for the taking.”

“Stealing such a shipment would increase the clout of the FBI informants in the cartel organization they had penetrated,” Dodson wrote, “and thus lead to better intel for them in the future.”

Representatives of the FBI, ATF and DEA declined to discuss that agent’s assertions or to answer questions about Terry’s death.

Some of Dodson’s narrative is documented in the Justice Department inspector general’s review, which described how Fast and Furious became tangled with collateral cases under the FBI and DEA. The inspector general’s report says the agencies’ failure to appreciate the significance of the inter-connected cases was “troubling.” However, it does not allege that the DEA knew of a drug shipment going through Peck Canyon, or that the FBI passed such information to informants.

The primary target of Fast and Furious was a Phoenix man named Manuel Celis-Acosta, who federal authorities believe was responsible for more than 1,500 weapons purchases during the 15-month probe. After the operation began in 2009, DEA officials informed ATF that they had a wiretap on Celis-Acosta and were monitoring his firearm activities. About the same time, according to congressional documents, two of Celis-Acosta’s associates who had financed gun purchases were cultivated as FBI informants.

Dodson alleges in his book that they even used “FBI money to ultimately purchase a significant portion of the firearms.”

Of the five men accused in the shooting, two are awaiting trial, one is reportedly in the custody of Mexican authorities and two remain at large. U.S. District Court records concerning the case have been sealed at the request of the Justice Department.

Dodson told The Arizona Republic that ATF administrators unsuccessfully tried to block publication of his manuscript and insisted that he qualify allegations about the Terry homicide to indicate they were not based upon classified information he gained as an agent. “They were very strict and stern about that,” he noted.

Dodson, who worked on an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force after Fast and Furious, said the FBI began using foreign counter-intelligence methods to investigate drug cartels domestically after the 9/11 attacks. He said agents sometimes allow or encourage criminal conduct by operatives to help them rise within organizations, and thus to produce better intelligence. He alleged that the attempted border rip-off that ended in Terry’s death was one such case.

“If they can get these guys (informants) in a position so they’re closer to the Tier 1 or Tier 2 guy (in the cartel), they’ll do it,” he said. “They want to make these guys (operatives) rock stars” in the eyes of drug lords.

Dodson said the practice is justified in the bureau by a perception that “it doesn’t matter what they (informants) are doing; these crimes are going to be happening anyway.” However, he added, the result is that agents strengthen a cartel to gain intelligence — and other agents or informants may do the same for rival crime syndicates.

“Essentially, the United States government is involved in cartel-building,” Dodson said.

A high-ranking cartel official facing trial in Chicago has made similar allegations in seeking to have charges against him thrown out. Jesus Zambada-Niebla, an associate of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and son of another narcotics boss, filed federal court motions claiming the Sinaloa Cartel leaders had a longtime arrangement with U.S. law enforcement.

“(They) were given carte blanche to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States and were also protected by the United States government from arrest and prosecution in return for providing information against rival cartels which helped Mexican and United States authorities capture or kill thousands of rival cartel members,” the motion stated.

Zambada-Niebla asserted that he was granted immunity during a 2011 meeting with DEA agents and their operative, cartel attorney Humberto Loya-Castro. Federal prosecutors admitted to a longtime informant relationship with Loya-Castro, and confirmed he was allowed to participate in criminal conduct “as specifically authorized” by Justice Department officials.

Zambada-Niebla is awaiting trial. A judge has rejected his motion for a dismissal based on informant immunity.

Dodson, who remains an ATF agent, is now based in Tucson, where he says he is treated as a pariah. “The Unarmed Truth” is a personal account of his saga as a whistle-blower, but also a critique of Fast and Furious that portrays colleagues as a gang that couldn’t think straight.

The book contains few revelations beyond the assertions about Terry’s death. The narrative style sometimes resembles prose in a detective novel, as when Dodson describes his decision to go public on a televised news broadcast.

“I didn’t start this war and I sure as hell wasn’t the cause of it,” he wrote. “But now that I was in it, I’d rather go down charging the pillbox than be sniped while sitting on my ass in the hedgerow. Here I come.”

During a phone interview, Dodson was asked whether cartel operatives would have been able to smuggle guns out of Arizona — as they’d been doing for years — even if the government had not aided them with Fast and Furious.

“Yes,” he answered. “But would it have happened in the same numbers? No, I don’t think so.”

He also was asked if a “gun-walking” strategy would have been justified if Fast and Furious had included some method of tracking the weapons to cartel kingpins.

“Does sometimes the ends justify the means? Yeah, I guess it does,” Dodson said. Phoenix investigators, however, had no such plan, he said, “and there was no way we were going to take down a cartel with what we were doing.”