By Ian Tuttle — January 21, 2016
Photo: Olivier Douliery/UPPA/Zuma
Obama-administration scandals never resolve. They just vanish — usually, under a new scandal.
So it was with one of this president’s earliest embarrassments, “Operation Fast and Furious,” designed to help the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) dismantle drug cartels operating inside the United States and disrupt drug-trafficking routes. Instead, it put into the hands of criminals south of the border some 2,000 weapons, which have been used to kill hundreds of Mexicans and at least one American, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Now, Fast and Furious is back in the news. Earlier this month, a raid on the hidey-hole of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman recovered not only the notorious drug lord, but a (“massive”) .50-caliber rifle, capable of stopping a car or shooting down a helicopter, that originated with the ATF program. Rest easy, though: Only 34 such rifles were sold through the program.
The news comes just days after a federal judge rejected President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege to deny Congress access to Fast and Furious–related records it requested back in 2012 as part of an investigation into the gun-walking operation. Despite the IRS scandal, Benghazi, and a host of other accusations of malfeasance against this White House, it remains this president’s sole assertion of executive privilege.
Three-and-a-half years later, the question is still: Why?
In November 2009, the ATF’s Phoenix field office launched an operation in which guns bought by drug-cartel straw purchasers in the U.S. were allowed to “walk” across the border into Mexico. ATF agents would then track the guns as they made their way through the ranks of the cartel.
At least, that was the theory. In reality, once the guns walked across the border, they were gone. Whistleblowers reported, and investigators later confirmed, that the ATF made no effort to trace the guns.
In March 2010, a few ATF agents voiced an obvious concern: Couldn’t the guns end up being used in crimes? Seven months later, that’s exactly what happened. The brother of the former attorney general of the state of Chihuahua was murdered, and Fast and Furious weapons were found at the scene.
In December, the scheme’s ramifications crossed back over the border. On December 14, four Border Patrol agents were staked out near Rio Rico, Ariz., eleven miles north of the Mexican border. A five-man “rip crew,” a group looking to rob drug smugglers crossing the border, opened fire when the agents attempted to apprehend. Agent Terry was struck in the back and bled to death. Two of the guns involved in the shootout were traced back to Fast and Furious, which continued for another six weeks.
The operation was finally shut down with the help of Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), then ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who promptly opened an investigation. Two months later, Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), then chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, opened his own investigation in the House.
Operation Fast and Furious would have been bad enough. But the investigation made clear a widespread cover-up. In February, in response to a request from Grassley, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich submitted for the record a letter declaring that any claim “that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them to Mexico — is false. ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.” In November, Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that gun-walking was, in fact, used, and in December the Obama administration formally withdrew Weich’s letter from the congressional record — because it was, in Holder’s words, “inaccurate.”
By that time, Holder had become a figure of particular interest. What did the attorney general know about the operation, and when did he know it? In May 2011, he claimed to have known about gun-walking tactics for only a few weeks. But by October, new documents showed that Holder had been briefed about Operation Fast and Furious as early as July 2010. And in January 2010, just months after the ATF had launched Operation Fast and Furious, personnel from the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, a multi-agency network run by the Department of Justice, had been brought in to provide additional manpower.
Furthermore, the operation may have had an explicitly political angle. E-mails obtained by CBS News in late 2011 showed ATF officials corresponding about the possibility of using Fast and Furious to push through a regulation requiring gun shops to report the sale of multiple rifles or “long guns.” In other words, the ATF permitted certain gun shops to conduct certain, inadvisable sales to dangerous people and then planned to point to those sales to justify the need for new reporting requirements.
By the summer of 2012, Holder and the House Oversight Committee were at a standoff, the attorney general claiming he had been fully responsive to the committee’s request for documents, Issa claiming that the DOJ had withheld 1,300 key pages. President Obama, intervening, declared that the documents were protected under executive privilege — a risible claim, legally, and a suggestive one, given the White House’s denial of involvement. In late June, at the recommendation of the committee, Holder became the first sitting member of a presidential cabinet to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives.
In September, the administration declared victory. The Department of Justice’s inspector general released a report recommending disciplinary action against 14 federal officials and absolving Holder — seemingly. In fact, the report noted a series of extraordinary coincidences in which, several times in 2010 and 2011, information about the program made it all the way to Holder’s desk — but without the attorney general’s ever managing to pass his eyes over it. Odd, that.
Since then, the investigation into Fast and Furious has been tied up in the courts, where the House challenged the president’s executive-privilege claim.
But the ATF & Co.’s horrendous judgment continues to take a toll. By the time of the House’s contempt vote, some 300 Mexicans had been killed or wounded by Fast and Furious firearms, and that number has surely risen. In December 2013, a walked gun was found at the site of a gunfight at a Mexican resort that left five cartel members dead.
The guns have found their way north, too. A weapon owned by Nadir Soofi, one of the two Muslim terrorists who tried to shoot up Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” contest in Texas last May, was acquired through Fast and Furious.
It is difficult to overstate both how stupid and how incompetent were the whole host of federal officials involved in this fiasco, who first thought it was a swell idea to traffic thousands of guns to Mexican criminals, then blithely forgot about them. It is difficult, too, to overstate the contempt of this administration for transparency, given that, having made those fatal mistakes, its response was to hide them from a congressional inquiry, going so far as to invoke executive privilege to do so. At best, the operation and its aftermath were an exercise in astonishing malpractice; at worst, the administration knowingly exhibited a reckless disregard for human life — then covered it up.
Under “Operation Fast & Furious,” the U.S. government became a de facto arms dealer to Mexican drug cartels and Islamist criminals.
But this administration still wants to lecture Americans about gun control . . .
— Ian Tuttle is a National Review Institute Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.