Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fast and Furious: A proxy war

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) created Operation Fast and Furious (which fell under a broader scheme, Project Gunrunner) sought to prevent illegal firearms into Mexico.  Drug cartels south of the border have been purchasing a variety of weapons (illegally) for years, and logic follows that these cartels would become less potent without guns. 

To stop the flow of illegal arms to Mexico, the ATF implemented a new tactic of "letting guns walk," whereby they knowingly allow guns to be sold to arms traffickers who supply drug cartels.  The ATF believed they could track these weapons (I am willing to presume the ATF has some fancy methods of tracking) back to the cartels and make arrests of high ranking officials within the cartels. 

The operation, which began circa 2009, sold over 2,000 weapons that were to be tracked.  Unfortunately, these weapons began appearing at crime scenes and have been linked to the deaths of numerous Mexicans and at least one American Border Patrol agent.  Hundreds of these guns are still unaccounted for.  Eventually, ATF agents who originally recommended against the gun-walking plan contacted members of Congress to investigate.

The ATF is organized under the Department of Justice (DOJ), and those officials have been running the 'Gunrunner' project since 2006, but the main question Congress is addressing -- "Who do we hold accountable?"  And this provides an excellent example of Congressional oversight of executive agencies, including the DOJ and the agencies under it. 

But Congress has deviated from its appropriate oversight role to the point where the investigation into 'Fast and Furious' has now transformed into a political pawn in the larger 'chess match' between House Republicans and the Obama administration.  Moreover, 'Fast and Furious' represents a battle for power between the legislative and executive branches of government.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has been tasked with the investigation, which included scathing questioning of various DOJ and ATF officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, who testified at length about who approved Fast and Furious and if he had personal knowledge of the operation.  Holder claimed he did not know who approved the operation, and that he only knew about it himself in the weeks prior to his testimony (in May of 2011). 

Later that fall, another round of questioning included a nasty exchange between Holder and Committee Chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), where Issa likened Holder's testimony and evasiveness to that of John Mitchell, the attorney general under President Richard Nixon.  Holder shot back with overt references to 'McCarthy' and the Red Scare of the 1950s.  The investigation has since come to a standstill, as Holder now refuses to comply with providing any further documents requested by Issa's committee. 

The situation became more complicated yesterday, when President Obama invoked 'executive privilege,' which is the prerogative of the President of the United States not to disclose information that is deemed too sensitive to be widely known.  The president's authorization means these documents requested by Issa's committee can be legitimately withheld. 

The concept of executive privilege originated with President George Washington and had been upheld by the Supreme Court as a legitimate power of the chief executive, but a narrowly defined power that typically only extends to protect matters of national security or military operations.  Also, advisors to the president can be shielded with executive privilege, so as to candidly assess policy situations with the president and other executive officials. 

In response to President Obama's claim of executive privilege, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to recommend holding the attorney general in contempt of Congress.  The final tally was 23-17, precisely along party lines.  What does that mean?  The entire House of Representatives will meet (possibly next week according to Speaker John Boehner) to determine whether or not to take the committee's recommendation and cite Holder for contempt. 

In theory, Holder could be held criminally responsible if cited for contempt of Congress (although legal experts state that outcome is unlikely).  This could lead to a potential showdown between the legislative and executive branch.  President Obama claims Holder does not have to comply with congressional requests.  Congress cites Holder for not complying with their requests.  And who determines the outcome of such a scenario?  The federal court system, of course.  Most likely, a conflict between the two would be taken straight to the Supreme Court. 

Strangely, this mess isn't about right versus wrong.  It represents political warfare between Democrats and Republicans.

When Congress was presented with information of the problematic 'Fast and Furious,' they were right to demand a thorough investigation into what amounts to a failed policy.  But the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has 40 members and not a one voted across party lines.  That signals to me either Democrats are seeking to protect the Obama administration from embarrassment, or Republicans are using this committee as a forum against Obama and not for finding the truth.  The answer is probably both are true.

Attorney General Holder probably had some knowledge of the ATF operation, and any evidence or admission of such would perhaps force his own resignation, not to mention provide the GOP with additional ammunition against the President Obama in November.  The White House administration would not be the first to have to admit to making a mistake. 

Also, the 17 Democrats on Issa's committee seem to be convinced the Republicans are solely bent on political warfare, while ignoring that officials within the Obama administration implemented a terrible policy.  Democrats seem to be okay with overlooking documents suggesting Holder was briefed about the operation as early as July of 2010.  Regardless of party affiliation, one ought not lie to Congress.

Republicans see this as an opportunity to stain the Obama administration, and provide a measure of payback for against Democrats.  In 2007, the party roles were reversed, where Republicans controlled the White House and Democrats held a majority in the House.  White House counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten were cited for contempt of Congress after President George W. Bush invoked executive privilege.

Strange is it may seem, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has dedicated a specific website to demonstrating the facts and testimony involved in the investigation into 'Fast and Furious.'  Don't misunderstand, I'm thrilled the government is being so transparent with their investigation, but one has to ask the why this particular investigation is so beyond others to receive such special attention.  And until given a reason to the contrary, I'm presuming that website exists to magnify the House proceedings and potentially embarrass a White House administration that is politically their opposite.

What is lost upon the media, the government, and everyone else is the fact that drug cartels still operate with impunity.  The top stories in the news and the great debate among politicians on Capitol Hill isn't about the people who kill, steal, and corrupt society.  The great debate is about who to blame, and how to leverage that into a November victory.  I wish this issue was only about right versus wrong.


  1. Great read! I couldn't agree more. That's exactly how I feel about the situation. Love the background information you put in about the roles of each branch. Hadn't looked at it from that point of view.

  2. Holder lied. He refused to comply with the legal request. He should, and now has, be held in contempt. He wouldn't do this if he was in s court of law unless he had something to hide.