A House vote is scheduled for today on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over an ATF gunwalking scandal, usually referred to by the name of its most significant operation, Fast and Furious. The complicated and controversial issue that centers around a highly-questionable policy that led to the death of at least one federal agent has a long history and multiple political ramifications. Here's a quick rundown of the issue itself, as well as things to look for as it continues to unfold.
Between 2006 and 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ran a series of "gunwalking" sting operations as part of Project Gunrunner, a Bush-era program designed to curb the flow of firearms into Mexico by interdicting purchasers and gun traffickers within the United States. Gunwalking is a policy where monitored guns are allowed to be sold and transported, rather than intercepted in a sting, for the purpose of following their delivery to bigger fish.
In this case, suspicious orders, like a high volume of assault rifles, were reported as being made to licensed dealers by suspected straw buyers (someone making the purchase on behalf of someone else) who might be buying them to be smuggled into Mexico for use by drug cartels. The policy was controversial from the get-go, with several agents and dealers expressing concerns that the guns would be used to commit crimes, possibly even leading to the death of federal agents.
Firearms that were allowed to be sold by the ATF under this policy have been found at murder scenes on both sides of the Mexico/U.S. border, including one involving the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. The "gunwalking" operations became public in the wake of Terry's murder. ATF whistleblowers came forward to Congress in response. Two months after Terry's death, Immigration and Customs Special Agent Jaime Zapata was ambushed and murdered while on assignment in Mexico. Weapons used in Zapata's murder were linked to suspects who had been under ATF surveillance for at least six months without being arrested.
As investigations have continued, the operations have become increasingly controversial. First, there's the matter of the policy itself, which seems to have originated in response to criticism that the ATF doesn't successfully reel in enough high-value targets. However, for obvious reasons, U.S. citizens, members of Congress and other officials have questioned the judgment of allowing such dangerous weapons to move freely.
The results yielded have been poor. In addition to the aforementioned deaths, the operations were unsuccessful in terms of catching up-the-ladder criminals. Operation Fast and Furious led to the sale of over 2,000 of these firearms, of which nearly 700 were recovered as of October 20, 2011, according to a report by CBS. A number of the so-called straw purchasers have been arrested and indicted, however, none of the targeted, higher-level cartel figures have been arrested.
ATF is overseen by the Justice Department, which is of course headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, who has consistently denied authorizing gunwalking operations, or knowing about the tactic's use while it was occurring. Holder asked the Justice Department Inspector General to investigate gunwalking in February 2010 and has testified in Congressional hearings on Operation Fast and Furious nine times.
In May of 2011, he told the Judiciary Committee, "I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks." This has been the biggest source of controversy for him, because there are memos and emails addressed to the AG that date back to the previous July which mention the operation. Holder claims that he was answering when he first knew about the gunwalking policy of the operation, which is what he was being questioned about, and says he misunderstood the question if it was intended to ask when he'd first knew of the operation's existence otherwise.
There has been no proof offered so far that Holder knew about gunwalking while it was being used, but Holder and the Justice Department have not agreed to turn over all documents requested by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, hence the contempt vote, which will be further politicized by the NRA's claim that the operation was rooted in a desire to implement stricter gun control laws. The influential group has recommended to all House members that they vote in favor of holding Holder in contempt.
You might be wondering where the President fits in. Just before the first time a vote to hold the Attorney General in contempt was scheduled to be taken, President Obama invoked executive privilege for the first time during his presidency in order to prevent some of the requested documents from being released. Rep. Issa challenged the use of privilege, arguing that the measure is reserved for documents to and from the president and his most senior advisers, while President Obama's use broadly covers communications beyond that of himself and such qualified advisers.
Holder has testified that the White House knew nothing about the Fast and Furious operation's gunwalking, and had no one involved in the management of the operation, which either makes a case for privilege thin, or suggests that both have lied. Further complicating the issue for the President is that back in 2007, while he was a Senator running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he criticized then-President Bush for invoking executive privilege over his administration's firing of several DOJ attorneys, even calling for then Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez's resignation, saying he was not the "people's attorney," but the "president's attorney." The appearance that White House staff may have leaked matters of national security to the press in order to bolster the President's national security image heading into an election also casts a big shadow on a seemingly thin case for withholding the requested documents for reasons ostensibly linked to protecting our national security interests.
When we get down to brass tacks, there are two issues here. One is the matter of whether gunwalking should be viewed as an unacceptable tactic, which all evidence seems to suggest is the case. The other, and the one at the root of today's vote, is whether getting to the bottom of who authorized it, and who knew what when, is being obstructed either by Attorney General Holder or the White House, and for political reasons rather than matters of national security.
After eight years of presidential lies and secrecy under the previous administration, a thirst for transparency certainly aided in President Obama's rise to power. Election year or not, he owes Americans, as well as the families of Mr. Terry and Mr. Zapata, more than his vague promise to look into things and make sure that people who made mistakes are "held accountable." His role in this matter is not to decide that, but to facilitate the body whose role it is; in this case the House Oversight Committee.
Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. His column appears every Thursday and Sunday on our site and in our free Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition (click here to subscribe). An archive of Dennis' columns is available here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook and Twitter by clicking the badges below.
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