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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mission Implausible

Still waiting for answers on Operation Fast and Furious, the Obama administration's festering scandal.

During a tense confrontation with Congress back in December, Attorney General Eric Holder made a startling admission. Holder testified that weapons tied to a failed gun-tracking initiative will be used in crimes both in the United States and Mexico "for years to come"—with often deadly results.

Operation Fast and Furious—the Hollywood-style code name for the aforementioned botched sting on gun runners—has emerged as one of the Obama administration's biggest scandals. No less an establishment voice than CNN's Jack Cafferty has asked if Fast and Furious could become "President Obama's Watergate." Since it has resulted in actual deaths, it is not clear that the cover-up is necessarily worse than the crime. But critics keep raising a question similar to the one at the center of the crisis that brought down Richard Nixon: What did the attorney general know and when did he know it?

Officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were tired of going after small fries. They decided it was time to go after the major gun traffickers and cartels responsible for the violence on the southwest border. Apparently, they felt the old protocols were too constricting. Something new needed to be tried to blow the lid off those behind the flow of weapons.

That's where Fast and Furious came in. To get around federal gun control laws, many transactions involving weapons that will be used in crimes are conducted by buyers who are acting as proxies for the criminal. These proxies are called straw purchasers. Under normal circumstances, when the authorities detect straw purchases—either through their own investigations or tips from licensed firearms dealers seeing suspicious buying activity in their midst—they move in and arrest the buyers. Under this new operation, an offshoot of Project Gunrunner, they were instructed to let the buyer walk.

Instead of just arresting the middle man, the idea was to let the straw buyer lead them to the bigger criminals for whom they were obtaining the weapons. Despite their concerns, the firearms dealers would proceed with the sale. The ATF would then track the guns. The weapons would then be the undoing of the bigwigs involved in gun and drug crimes on both sides of the border. There would be major arrests and prosecutions for criminals, awards and promotions for ATF officials.

The ATF wasn't acting alone. Officials in the Obama Justice Department were also interested in moving beyond the straw buyers. "Given the national scope of this issue, merely seizing firearms through interdiction will not stop firearms trafficking to Mexico," reads an October 2009 memo from then Deputy Attorney General David Ogden's office. "We must identify, investigate, and eliminate the sources of illegally trafficked firearms and the networks that transport them."

This all makes a certain amount of sense in theory, plausible enough for a movie plot. Experts in the field never considered it very likely to work. "If you want to go after cartels, you never follow the drugs or the guns," says a source close to the operation. "You follow the money." Special agents John Dodson, Olindo "Lee" Casa, and Peter Forcelli all complained to Congress that there was no reliable way to track the weapons once they were purchased until they turned up again at crime scenes. Forcelli called the techniques "delusional," estimating that guns wound up in Mexico twice as often as the United States, and Casa said he had never heard of letting straw buyers get away before he worked in the ATF's Phoenix office.

A source familiar with ATF practices says it is unusual even to advise a reluctant firearms dealer on whether to proceed with the sale, much less to instruct them to sell the weapons and then let the guns walk. But sellers were reportedly allowing transactions with obvious straw buyers to go forward under the impression that federal authorities had the matter under control.

UNFORTUNATELY, THINGS WEREN'T under control. Two weapons involved in Fast and Furious were found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry's murder in Arizona in December 2010. An investigation showed that Terry's wasn't an isolated case. More than 2,000 guns—including AK-47s and .50-caliber rifles, and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition—were allowed to "walk" into the possession of Mexican drug lords. The ATF has since acknowledged that 800 of these guns were used in crimes in both Mexico and the United States—crimes Holder has admitted will continue for years to come. Though the numbers are in dispute, Fast and Furious guns have been tied to as many as 200 murders in Mexico.

A report by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) concluded, "The [Justice] department's leadership allowed the ATF to implement this flawed strategy, fully aware of what was taking place on the ground." Their report continued, "This hapless plan allowed the guns in question to disappear out of the agency's view. As a result, this chain of events inevitably placed the guns in the hands of violent criminals."

Terry's slaying put an end to Operation Fast and Furious, but questions have persisted ever since. Who authorized the operation? Both the president and the attorney general have denied any knowledge, but how far up the chain of command did things go? Who knew what when? Was there a broader gun control initiative at work here or was this simply a poorly conceived sting operation gone awry?

So far, there have been more questions than answers. Issa, chairman of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, has been particularly tenacious in trying to get to the bottom of this. Calling Fast and Furious "felony stupid," he has grilled Justice Department and ATF officials. His committee has obtained emails showing the acting director of the ATF at the time, Kenneth Melson, and his acting deputy, William Hoover, received weekly updates on the operation's progress. Melson was reassigned as a result of the scandal.

Republican investigators have complained that the administration is stonewalling. In June, Issa berated Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich. "How dare you make an opening statement of cooperation!" he exclaimed, holding up an entirely redacted document. "You've given us black paper!" In a July deposition, Melson denied any knowledge of the operation and blamed field agents, supervisors, and his own subordinates for the failures. He said that even his intelligence chief had concerns about the program, but did little to stop it. "He didn't come in and tell me, either," Melson complained. "And he's on the same damn floor as I am." This is despite repeated testimony from agents that they objected to the operation at the time but were overruled by their superiors.

Melson's replacement as acting director of the ATF, B. Todd Jones, sang a somewhat different tune. "There was a vacuum. Fast and Furious went off the rails, and there were plenty of opportunities to pivot so none of this would happen," Jones told the Los Angeles Times. "Anybody, including Mr. Melson, who waits for things to happen or waits for information to come to them, that is something I personally am not a believer in." Jones described himself as a "a believer in management by walking around."

Today nobody professes to be a believer in investigation by guns walking around. Holder accepted "ultimate responsibility" for what happens in his department and vowed Fast and Furious "must never happen again," but told Congress to move on. "We cannot afford to allow the tragic mistakes of 'Operation Fast and Furious' to become a political sideshow or a series of media opportunities," the attorney general testified. "Instead, we must move forward and recommit ourselves to our shared public safety obligations."

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