Fast and furious hasn’t been discussed a lot in the mainstream media, which is why the facts can seem so preposterous when you read them for the first time. But the story is slowly unraveling and the public is catching up with the madness. On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over his decision to withhold documents related to the “gun walking” operation – documents that President Obama tried to keep secret by invoking executive privilege. The question of why the Prez intervened in this way will surely hang over the investigation and the White House for many months to come. Be patient, conservatives. It took nearly eight months for the Watergate break in to become a national news story. But when it finally did, it toppled a President.
Here’s what Fast and Furious is all about – and for the uninitiated, be prepared for a shock. In 2009, the US government instructed Arizona gun sellers illegally to sell arms to suspected criminals. Agents working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were then ordered not to stop the sales but to allow the arms to “walk” across the border into the arms of Mexican drug-traffickers. According to the Oversight Committee’s report, “The purpose was to wait and watch, in hope that law enforcement could identify other members of a trafficking network and build a large, complex conspiracy case…. [The ATF] initially began using the new gun-walking tactics in one of its investigations to further the Department’s strategy. The case was soon renamed ‘Operation Fast and Furious.”
Tracing the arms became difficult, until they starting appearing at bloody crime scenes. Many Mexicans have died from being shot by ATF sanctioned guns, but the scandal only became public after a US federal agent, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, was killed by one of them in a fire fight. ATF whistle blowers started to come forward and the Department of Justice was implicated. It’s estimated that the US government effectively supplied 1,608 weapons to criminals, at a total value of over $1 million. Aside from putting American citizens in danger, the AFT also supplied what now amounts to a civil war within Mexico.
It’s important to note that the Bush administration oversaw something similar to Fast and Furious. Called Operation Wide Receiver, it used the common tactic of “controlled delivery,” whereby agents would allow an illegal transaction to take place, closely follow the movements of the arms, and then descend on the culprits. But Fast and Furious is different because it was “uncontrolled delivery,” whereby the criminals were essentially allowed to drop off the map. Perhaps more importantly, Wide Receiver was conducted with the cooperation of the Mexican government. Fast and Furious was not.
So Obama’s operation is subtly different. But just as concerning is the heavy-handed way that the administration has handled criticism. Obama says that the Oversight Committee has been hijacked by Republicans who would rather talk about politics than creating jobs (because Obama is oh so very good at generating those). But there has been Democratic criticism too, and the Prez’s determined defence of Holder will only encourage conspiracy thinking that the scandal has hidden depths. Executive privilege is usually associated with protecting information that passes through the Oval Office. What did the documents reveal about Obama’s association with the operation?
Again, it’s important to contextualise. Executive privilege has been invoked 24 times since Ronald Reagan, and attempts to over-ride it rarely reach the courts. Moreover, Holder’s request for executive privilege made no reference to White House involvement in Fast and Furious, which seems to have been run exclusively by the ATF. Nevertheless, by refusing to sack Holder or push him to come clean, Obama may have made a very Nixonian mistake.
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