Ten Arizona sheriffs slammed the Obama administration on Friday over a botched federal operation that that lost track of up to 1,400 weapons sold to suspected straw purchasers for Mexican drug gangs.
The sheriffs called for the president to launch an independent investigation and for Attorney General Eric Holder to step down or be fired. They also said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' 2009 operation, known as "Fast and Furious," was a betrayal of state law enforcement.
"We're down there busting our butts every day trying to keep the American public safe," said Cochise County Larry Dever, whose jurisdiction is on the Arizona-Mexico border.
"We are here to help defend America, whether it's beyond the border or any place north where the tentacles of these cartels reach into our communities across this nation every single day. And for our own government to be complicit in helping them conduct that business is offensive to us," he said.
In what ATF said was an effort to target drug cartel leaders, the agency allowed straw purchasers for drug cartels to buy thousands of weapons from Arizona gun shops. Officials say agents lost track of about 1,400 of more than 2,000 guns identified in the operation.
A number of guns have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, and two of the guns were found at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was shot to death in southern Arizona on Dec. 14. It's still unclear whether the fatal bullet came from one of those weapons or another gun.
Standing in front of a Phoenix memorial for fallen law enforcement officers, including Terry, Dever and the other sheriffs called for the truth to come out about the entire operation. Five of the sheriffs are Democrats, and the other five are Republicans.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said that Terry's families' "hearts are broken."
"They want the truth, and they haven't been given the truth," he said. "Where's the honor of our country and us in law enforcement when a brother officer is murdered in our state here in Arizona, protecting our country, and then we find out months later that two of these weapons were weapons from Fast and Furious?"
Babeu said he wants President Barack Obama to appoint a special council to conduct an independent investigation into the matter and for Holder to step down or be fired, saying that Fast and Furious happened under his watch.
"We want to get to the bottom of this. One, to find out what truly happened, and two, to ensure this never happens again," he said. "This is not political. This is a public safety issue, this is a threat against our deputies and local officers, not only in Arizona but across the Southwest."
While some of the sheriffs drove several hours for the news conference, Arizona's most famous sheriff did not attend, even though it was less than 2 miles away from his office.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Republican, said as a former federal official himself, he was reserving judgment about Fast and Furious until all the findings are released.
"It's my philosophy not to accuse a federal law enforcement agency until you have all the facts," he said. "There may be a few problems within the organization, but we shouldn't judge a federal organization — I'm talking about the ATF now — with some possible misdeeds."
He added, "I am going to let the system take its course."
Fast and Furious has been the subject of recent congressional hearings in which the ATF acknowledged making mistakes and led to the resignations of the ATF's acting director and former U.S. Attorney of Arizona Dennis Burke, amid other personnel shake-ups.
Dever defended Burke and other state level officials, saying that they took the fall for an operation that was decided by people well above them.
"Whoever it is, needs to be held accountable," he said. "We're in a fight for our country, our constitution and our very lives."
B. Todd Jones, the ATF's new acting director, announced 11 major personnel changes this week designed to give the agency a fresh start.
At a briefing for reporters, Jones said the controversy surrounding Fast and Furious may have diminished the level of trust between U.S. law enforcement officials and their counterparts in Mexico, and that it's something the agency is going to have to rebuild.
On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas also called for a special council to investigate Fast and Furious, saying that Holder may have misled Congress about his knowledge of the operation.