UpdateBy Allan Lengel ticklethewire.com
William Newell, who headed ATF’s Phoenix Division during the controversial operation dubbed Fast and Furious, won’t be going to Mexico as ATF’s attache after all.
The agency has decided to to nix that assignment before he even heads south. Instead, he’s been named special assistant to the ATF Assistant Director for the Office of Management in Washington.
The reassignment comes at a time the Mexican Justice Department known as the PGR is reportedly conducting a criminal probe into the Fast and Furious Operation. It has also requested transcripts of Newell’s recent testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, according to two people familiar with the situation.
Concern had surfaced recently within ATF that the Mexican government might arrest Newell if he came down there as the attache.
Lydia Antonio, a press officer for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, declined to comment for this story. An ATF official familiar with the matter confirmed the reassignment, but declined to speculate on why Newell’s Mexico City assignment was changed.
The move to keep Newell in Washington is direct turn about for the agency, which up until recently, had insisted that Newell was still going to Mexico City as the ATF attache even as the Mexican government fumed over Fast and Furious, which encouraged Arizona gun dealers to sell to straw purchasers or middlemen, with the hopes of tracing the weapons to the Mexican cartels. Some of the guns have surfaced at crime scenes.
ATF first announced internally last Fall that Newell, who is fluent in Spanish, would become the new attache in Mexico City. But after the controversy broke over Fast and Furious, ATF delayed his departure to Mexico and sent him on a detour to Washington to help Congressional investigators and the Inspector General investigate the faulty Fast and Furious operation.
Agents around the country, according to one person, were angry over Newell’s testimony at a Congressional hearing last month when he denied that ATF let guns walk. During his testimony, he admitted there had been some mistakes, but essentially defended the operation.
In a phone interview Thursday with ticklethewire.com, Newell’s attorney Paul Pelletier of Washington, a former federal prosecutor, commented on the Newell’s job reassignment by saying: “Going to Mexico, given the way his public service has been unfairly portrayed, would not be prudent.”
But Pelletier said Newell has been extremely dedicated to fighting gun trafficking to Mexico.
“Bill’s career with the ATF has been mostly on the Southwest border and he’s made his career literally preventing guns from going to Mexico” he said. “That’s what his career has been based on. He’s done a lot. He’s been a strong advocate of stopping the flow of guns into Mexico.”
He said Newell volunteered to take his family to Mexico City to take on a dangerous assignment so he could continue addressing the problem.
“The public theater has not been fair to him and has not been fair to ATF.”
Pelletier also noted that Newell was instrumental in getting a member of the Mexican Justice Department stationed in the Phoenix Division.
Is ATF Concerned About Sending ATF “Fast and Furious” Official to Mexico?By Allan Lengel
Last October in Orlando, at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the heads of the ATF field offices gathered for a SAC meeting. It was there where it was announced that William Newell, head of the Phoenix office, would become the ATF’s attache to Mexico.
Newell, an up and comer in the agency, seemed like a good choice. He was fluent in Spanish or as one person said “he spoke Spanish like professor.” And he had experience dealing with the Mexican cartels.
In fact, he was helping head up a little known program at the time called “Operation Fast and Furious”, which encouraged Arizona gun dealers to sell weapons to “straw purchasers” — all with the hopes of tracing the guns to the Mexican cartel.
It was a bold program and a highly ambitious one.
But months later, it became a very controversial one after word got out that some weapons were showing up at crime scenes, including in the fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry last December.
Congressional inquiries started. An Inspector General probe was launched. A media frenzy ensued.
Now, eight months after the announcement in Orlando, Newell has been holed up in Washington instead of Mexico supposedly to help the Congressional inquiries into Operation Fast and Furious. His post in Phoenix has already been filled and his assignment as ATF’s Mexican attache has been put on hold.
Word inside ATF, according to one knowledgeable person, is that some in the agency have voiced concerns about sending Newell to Mexico as an attache because the Mexican government, which is fuming over Fast and Furious, might pursue criminal charges and arrest Newell.
Fox News reported Tuesday that the Mexican government is furious about Fast and Furious and wants to extradite American officials for prosecution. Sending Newell might make that all too easy for the Mexicans.
Whether Mexico goes that far is unclear.
Nonetheless, sending Newell isn’t likely to sit well in Mexico.
But an ATF official on Friday tried to dispel any notion that Newell won’t be headed south of the border.
“As far as his assignment to Mexico City, it’s still in place but it’s been temporarily postponed so that he can assist with the Congressional inquiries and the OIG (Office of Inspector General) review,” the official told ticklethewire.com.
Newell did not respond to an email asking for comment.
When asked for comment more than a week ago, the Mexican embassy in Washington asked that ticklethewire.com submit questions in writing. There was no response.
On Friday, a spokesman did call back and left a voicemail. But the spokesman could not be reached after that.
The embassy spokesman did not immediately return the call on Tuesday for comment.