One Republican congressman has suggested that Attorney General Eric Holder ought to be arrested and face criminal charges of being an accessory to murder, and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and even President Obama might be implicated.
Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association calls it “the biggest cover-up since Watergate” and describes Operation Fast and Furious as “just one part of Barack Obama’s agenda to attack gun owners and our Second Amendment rights.” Conservative bloggers are even arguing that the “Fast and Furious” case constitutes grounds for impeachment, with claims that it’s “the Reichstag fire of the Second Amendment.”
An excitable little bunch, aren’t they?
For those not deeply entrenched in far-right conspiracy theories, let’s begin with the basics. “Fast and Furious” was an undercover operation launched out of Phoenix in 2009 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The investigation attempted to trace 1,500 to 2,000 firearms as they were purchased here in the United States by agents of Mexican drug cartels and then smuggled across the border. The ATF’s aim was to use that information to prosecute, disarm and break the cartels.
But things went very, very wrong.
ATF agents lost track of the guns. Two AK-47s involved in the investigation were recovered later at the scene of a murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Other weapons lost in the operation have clearly made their way into the hands of the cartels and have been used in violent crimes in Mexico.
In the aftermath of the botched operation, the U.S. attorney in Arizona and the acting ATF head have both been removed. The inspector general of the Justice Department has launched an internal investigation and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has held hearings and subpoenaed thousands of emails and other documents from the ATF, the Justice Department and even the White House.
Through his probe, Issa is clearly hoping to establish that top Obama administration officials were deeply involved in the scandal, a suggestion that so far he has been unable to document. Instead of being an invention of the Obama administration, for example, it turns out Operation Fast and Furious was an offshot of similar operations carried out by the ATF as far back as 2006, under the Bush administration.
Inevitably, “what did he know and when did he know it” also becomes an issue in such investigations. In May, the attorney general testified to Issa’s committee that he first became aware of the program and its difficulties this spring. Issa has since released documents indicating that information about Fast and Furious had been sent to Holder back in 2010. That has led to claims that Holder committed perjury and is conducting a coverup.
It turns out, however, that Issa himself was also briefed on “Fast and Furious” back in 2010. His spokesman, Frederick Hill, admits the session occurred but says that “the briefing was broad… my understanding is that Fast and Furious never came up by name in this briefing, and certainly they had no discussion about the controversial tactics.”
And that’s pretty much the explanation that Holder’s spokesman gives as well, citing the volume of material that crosses an attorney general’s desk:
“None of the handful of entries in 2010 regarding the Fast and Furious suggested there was anything amiss with that investigation requiring leadership to take corrective action or commit to memory this particular operation prior to the disturbing claims raised by ATF agents in the early part of 2011.”
Again, there’s no question that Fast and Furious represents a serious failure of federal law enforcement, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if those responsible for that failure were less than eager to inform superiors in Washington about their mistakes. However, the inspector general’s investigation and the investigation by Issa’s committee should help lay out exactly what happened.
However, there’s something deeper going on here as well, and it’s reflected in the comments from LaPierre and others.
The flow of firearms across the U.S. border is a serious challenge. So far, some 65,000 guns confiscated in Mexico by authorities have been traced back to gun purchases made here in the United States. One single individual tracked during the Fast and Furious investigation bought more than 700 weapons for transfer to the Mexican cartels, in some cases purchasing 20 or more AK-47-type assault weapons in a single purchase.
However, when the Obama administration proposed a new regulation that would require border-state gun shops to notify officials if a single individual attempted to buy large numbers of guns, the NRA protested bitterly.
“This is just a shallow excuse to engage in a sweeping firearms registration scheme,” LaPierre wrote on the NRA’s website. At the NRA’s insistence, the House passed a resolution opposing that regulation, and the NRA has since filed suit against the rule.
The truth is, the right has fixated on “Fast and Furious” not because it wants the federal government to become more effective in its efforts to stop gunrunning across the Mexican border. Quite the contrary. It wants to raise such a stink about “Fast and Furious” that the government is forced to stop undercover gun-trafficking investigations altogether. They see this as an opportunity to discredit and handcuff ATF, an agency that the NRA and others view as a hated enemy.
(LaPierre, you may recall, infamously referred to ATF agents as “jack-booted government thugs,” as in “lifting the assault weapons ban (is necessary) to even the odds in the struggle between ordinary citizens and jack-booted government thugs.”)
The undercover aspect of the operation is particularly galling to the NRA because it recalls sting operations conducted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others. In those operations, private detectives went to gun shops and gun shows and were sold guns even though they told the gun sellers that they weren’t legally eligible to buy weapons. The fact that federal officials are using similar tactics outrages the NRA.
The working theory on the right — the thought process by which this botched law-enforcement operation turns into “the Reichstag fire of the Second Amendment” — is that Fast and Furious was concocted in the upper reaches of the Obama administration as a means to justify harsh gun-confiscation laws and the reimposition of the assault-weapons ban.
That’s why it has become such a cause celebre; that’s why it is supposedly “bigger than Watergate” with the potential to end in Obama’s impeachment. There’s no evidence whatsoever to support that notion, just the overheated minds of people who let hate-driven imaginations overwhelm rational thought.
– Jay Bookman