It was nearly impossible in Arizona to bring a case against a straw purchaser. The federal prosecutors there did not consider the purchase of a huge volume of guns, or their handoff to a third party, sufficient evidence to seize them. A buyer who certified that the guns were for himself, then handed them off minutes later, hadn't necessarily lied and was free to change his mind. Even if a suspect bought 10 guns that were recovered days later at a Mexican crime scene, this didn't mean the initial purchase had been illegal. To these prosecutors, the pattern proved little. Instead, agents needed to link specific evidence of intent to commit a crime to each gun they wanted to seize.
None of the ATF agents doubted that the Fast and Furious guns were being purchased to commit crimes in Mexico. But that was nearly impossible to prove to prosecutors' satisfaction. And agents could not seize guns or arrest suspects after being directed not to do so by a prosecutor. (Agents can be sued if they seize a weapon against prosecutors' advice. In this case, the agents had a particularly strong obligation to follow the prosecutors' direction given that Fast and Furious had received a special designation under the Justice Department's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. That designation meant more resources for the case, but it also provided that prosecutors take the lead role.)
In their Jan. 5 meeting, Hurley suggested another way to make a case: Voth's team could wiretap the phone of a suspected recruiter and capture proof of him directing straw purchasers to buy guns. This would establish sufficient proof to arrest both the leaders and the followers.
On Jan. 8, 2010, Voth and his supervisors drafted a briefing paper in which they explained Hurley's view that "there was minimal evidence at this time to support any type of prosecution." The paper elaborated, "Currently our strategy is to allow the transfer of firearms to continue to take place, albeit at a much slower pace, in order to further the investigation and allow for the identification of additional co-conspirators."
Rep. Issa's committee has flagged this document as proof that the agents chose to walk guns. But prosecutors had determined, Voth says, that the "transfer of firearms" was legal. Agents had no choice but to keep investigating and start a wiretap as quickly as possible to gather evidence of criminal intent.
Ten days after the meeting with Hurley, a Saturday, Jaime Avila, a transient, admitted methamphetamine user, bought three WASR-10 rifles at the Lone Wolf Trading Company in Glendale, Ariz. The next day, a helpful Lone Wolf employee faxed Avila's purchase form to ATF to flag the suspicious activity. It was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, so the agents didn't receive the fax until Tuesday, according to a contemporaneous case report. By that time, the legally purchased guns had been gone for three days. The agents had never seen the weapons and had no chance to seize them. But they entered the serial numbers into their gun database. Two of these were later recovered at Brian Terry's murder scene.