June 2012, Week 5


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Fri, 29 Jun 2012 22:53:27 -0400
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Facts Get in the Way of GOP's Fast and Furious Investigation

George Zornick
June 29, 2012

Have you been ignoring the Fast & 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 U.S. 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 & Furious has been
blown completely out of proportion by Republican
leaders, and a terrible yet all-to-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 U.S. Border Patrol Brian Terry was murdered by
bandits wielding a gun that was walked under Fast &

So the thrust of the GOP storyline is overzealous gun-
grabbers at Obama's ATF took risks that lead 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 a gun show
and was philosophically opposed to those arrests.

So, unable to arrest the buyers, the agent running Fast
& 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 & Furious--and Dodson, incredibly,
was the "brave whistleblower" who exposed the entire

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 & 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 wouldn't be granted.

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 U.S. 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.


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