House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Representative Darrell Issa, R-CA, at the House Rules Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, to argue procedures as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on whether Attorney General Eric Holder is in contempt of Congress because he has refused to give the Oversight Committee all the documents it wants related to Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed gun-smuggling probe involving Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Have you been ignoring the Fast and Furious scandal? It’s okay. I will confess that for probably too long, I tuned out the brouhaha as just another tempest in the News Corp. teapot and relegated it to the dimly lit area of my brain where Bill Ayers, Vince Foster, Solyndra and others reside.
But with the House of Representatives voting Thursday to hold US Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt—the first time in American history this has happened—the story can’t be ignored any longer.
Yet when one digs into the facts of the scandal—and a terrific piece of journalism in Fortune this week is a great help—it becomes clear that Fast and Furious has been blown completely out of proportion by Republican leaders, and a terrible yet all too common tragedy on the United States’ border with Mexico has been fashioned into an ugly political weapon.
Here’s a condensed version of what Republicans say happened. (I will do my very best here to be completely faithful to their telling; feel free to also check out the Fast and Furious page put together by the majority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has led the charge against Holder).
According to Republicans, in fall 2009 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms began a dangerous effort to stop the flow of guns into Mexico under the auspices of Operation Fast and Furious. The ATF officers used a method of investigation called gun-walking, in which they recruited straw buyers in Arizona to purchase and transmit guns south of the border in order to build a stronger case against the bad guys. Officers logged the purchases and gun serial numbers, applied for wiretaps, but never tried to intercept the weapons.
This allowed drug cartels to obtain potentially hundreds of dangerous weapons under the direct eye of federal authorities, a bad idea that turned tragic in December 2010 when US Border Patrol Brian Terry was murdered by bandits wielding a gun that was walked under Fast and Furious.
So the thrust of the GOP storyline is overzealous gun-grabbers at Obama’s ATF took risks that led directly to the murder of a Border Patrol agent.
But the piece in Fortune, in which reporter Katherine Eban interviewed many of the agents involved for the first time ever, completely demolishes this version of events. (It’s worth a full read).
Eban reveals that the ATF never intentionally walked the guns, save one important exception that we’ll get to momentarily. Instead, they were unable to obtain warrants to arrest the purchasers. Prosecutors were extremely wary of arresting straw buyers, either for fear of retribution from the NRA—who hammered ATF in 2005 for seizing guns from a straw buyer—or because they were gun aficionados themselves. One local prosecutor was reportedly seen behind a table at a gun show and was philosophically opposed to those arrests.