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.
So, unable to arrest the buyers, the agent running Fast and Furious resigned his unit to simply tracking the purchases in hopes of using the evidence later. This is a world away from purposefully letting the guns go, and Eban chronicles numerous efforts by the ATF agents to overcome bureaucratic and legal obstacles and arrest the buyers—they just weren’t able to do it.
The one exception is agent John Dodson, who used $2,500 in taxpayer money to buy six guns from a local dealer, passed them to a trafficker, and then took a long vacation. This is the only proven instance of gun-walking under Fast and Furious—and Dodson, incredibly, was the “brave whistleblower” who exposed the entire operation.
Eban reports that Dodson hated his boss Dave Voth because Voth supposedly “treated him like shit.” Dodson disobeyed a direct order from Voth not to walk guns in this manner—and then, a few months later, went to CBS News with allegations that the ATF “ordered” him to walk guns and that in fact it was a common practice there.
CBS News never fully checked out his story, and never talked to Voth—and still hasn’t retracted the piece. Yet neither Dodson nor anyone else has ever proven there were orders to perform gun-walking, nor proven any other episode other that Dodson’s own. (Voth was deeply shocked by Dodson’s actions—a “blow he couldn’t fathom,” according to Eban, who added that he began losing weight and sleep. “There would be no way,” Voth is quoted as saying, “to foreshadow this.”)
What made things worse for the administration—and what made it a target of the House investigation—is that after saying there was no gun-walking at ATF, it flipped, admitted there was, and apologized. There was good reason to initially claim there was no gun-walking, since Eban documents how nobody high up at ATF knew about it, much less people at the Department or Justice or the White House. (Obama has said he learned about Fast and Furious on the news).
But when confronted with the evidence of Dodson’s own gun-walking, the administration appears to have panicked. (See also Jones, Van and Sherrod, Shirley). High-ranking officials resigned and apologies were made.
The documents that Issa is now after focus on that period in 2011 between when the administration said there was no gun-walking and then changed its mind. The express implication is that there was a cover-up—that Holder and possibly the White House knew about gun-walking all along (maybe even encouraged it) and only admitted the practice when forced.
Representative Darrell Issa’s committee has pushed and pushed for documents relating to that period, receiving almost 7,000 pages—none of which contain any evidence of a cover-up.
The committee pushed until they finally hit the bottom of the barrel, requesting documents that the administration says are privileged and can’t be released. This relies on a perhaps overly broad interpretation of executive privilege that should trouble advocates of transparent government—but also a well-established one Issa knew would be invoked.
Holder has directly accused Issa of deliberately “provok[ing] an avoidable conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch,” and it’s easy to see why Republicans would be motivated to hold an Obama official in historic contempt only months before elections. Republicans already harbor a deep antipathy towards Holder anyhow, for everything from DOJ’s failure to defend DOMA to strong action to combat voter ID laws.
It now seems unlikely this will go anywhere—following the contempt vote, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia will consider whether to prosecute, but it’s hard to imagine much of a case here. In addition, Republican leaders seem wary to go very far with Issa’s crusade for fear it makes them look petty. House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team initially didn’t want a contempt vote, and when they finally scheduled one, it was buried only hours after the biggest Supreme Court decision in years.
On Wednesday, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer appeared on Fox News and tried to temper the network’s flogging of the story, saying it made Republicans look bad and predicting leaders would “get off this train as soon as they can.” The public doesn’t seem to be on board either—a Fox News poll with some very suggestive language still only found 38 percent of voters think there’s a White House cover-up. Despite what Issa thinks, Watergate this ain’t.