Fast and Furious?

by John Holbo on June 28, 2012

Like Kevin Drum, I haven’t really been following this Fast and Furious thingy. (I didn’t like the movies either.) And, like Drum, I’m amazed at the Forbes CNN Fortune piece he links to. If this is right, everything everyone has been saying about the case is wrong. Unlike Drum, I say it’s possible to extract the nub, like so:

Quite simply, there’s a fundamental misconception at the heart of the Fast and Furious scandal. Nobody disputes that suspected straw purchasers under surveillance by the ATF repeatedly bought guns that eventually fell into criminal hands. Issa and others charge that the ATF intentionally allowed guns to walk as an operational tactic. But five law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious tell Fortune that the ATF had no such tactic. They insist they never purposefully allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Just the opposite: They say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.

And, we might add:

Irony abounds when it comes to the Fast and Furious scandal. But the ultimate irony is this: Republicans who support the National Rifle Association and its attempts to weaken gun laws are lambasting ATF agents for not seizing enough weapons — ones that, in this case, prosecutors deemed to be legal.

Nor do the prosecutors appear to have been wrong.

Obviously the article could be wrong, but the author appears to have solicited comments from those who might be expected to say so, and not gotten much in the way of outright denial of this revisionist account. No comment from the agent who first blew the whistle on the ATF. And Darrell Issa is the big dog. “Issa’s spokesman asserts that even if ATF agents followed prosecutors’ directives, ‘the practice is nonetheless gun walking.’”

That’s serious gun-walking walk-back, if the spokesman has nothing more to add. The prosecutors did not tell the ATF to let the practice go on for any other reason than that the activity they were monitoring was not illegal. Apparently. No one seems to be saying differently. Furthermore, apparently it would have been illegal – not just inadvisable – for the agents to disregard the prosecutor’s judgment (even if they thought the prosecutor was legally mistaken). If the law permits gun walking, or at least that portion of the overall gun walking process the agents were able to observe – or if agents were at least legally required to treat it as permissible – Issa is still prepared to blame the AFT agents for permitting gun walking?

Because gun walking is bad. So Issa no doubt supports changing the law to make it illegal, so ATF agents don’t have to break the law to stop it?

Like Drum says: what do I know? Not a lot about Fast and Furious, before this. But if there is some truth to this Forbes piece, the spin around it has been something. I liked the Sunshine Bears vs. Renegades angle, too. More Elmore Leonard than Fast and Furious.

UPDATE: Why post about a thing like this? Not my usual? Because when the Supremes overturn Obamacare, we will forget about all other legal controversies for at least a whole month. Just thought I’d sneak something else in right before the hammer falls [whew!]. (I’ve got a bad feeling about this. But maybe I’m too pessimistic.)

{ 51 comments }

1

Both Sides Do It 06.28.12 at 6:56 am

“Why post about a thing like this?”

Also because the House is going to vote to hold the AG in contempt tomorrow. It’s nice to know in advance that this is probably a Bill Clinton situation and not a Harriet Miers / Josh Bolton situation.

2

Niall McAuley 06.28.12 at 8:27 am

John writes: I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

You said it, Chewie.

3

John Holbo 06.28.12 at 9:24 am

There’s another feature of the case that is interesting. A reasonable skeptic might respond: if this is what the story is, why haven’t those on the defense said as much already? The AFT, Holder, all the way up to the top? Judging from the article – one reading of it, maybe I need to read again – it looks like a sorry tale of everyone trying to throw those beneath them under the bus. But if you throw someone under the bus, you need to make sure you can’t be tied to them, rightly or wrongly. Issa and co. are obviously more interested in collecting high-value scalps, by any means necessary, than in punishing low level wrong-doing re: gun walking.

Once you’ve thrown someone under the bus, and now the bus is barreling down on you, it’s sort of hard to un-throw them, by way of getting unthrown under yourself. Which is ironic if, actually, like the person you threw under the bus, you don’t deserve to be thrown under the bus either.

4

John Holbo 06.28.12 at 9:25 am

“Also because the House is going to vote to hold the AG in contempt tomorrow.”

And there’s that, yes.

5

Emily 06.28.12 at 9:28 am

FYI, it was a CNN Money/Fortune piece, not Forbes. Though it would have been breaking news if Forbes had published an article like that, considering 90% of the site’s contributors worship at the altar of Ayn Rand and think it’s perfectly OK to label President Obama a Marxist-Kenyan-traitor in polite conversation. Forbes is the home of hackery.

6

John Holbo 06.28.12 at 9:35 am

I just noticed that myself. Corrected.

7

Scott Martens 06.28.12 at 9:59 am

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It does seem to me a touch hypocritical to say that guns in the hands of Americans don’t lead to crime, even when a significant number will certainly fall into the hands of criminals and be used in crimes; but letting guns fall into the hands of Mexican criminals, as part of what may have been an ill-conceived but at least not ridiculous effort to bring down larger gun-running circles, makes Obama morally culpable of murder.

8

John Holbo 06.28.12 at 9:59 am

There is one problem I don’t see the article addressing: why not go after these straw buyers as unlicensed gun sellers? You can sell a few guns without a license, but if you sell a lot, regularly, you need a license.

9

Phil 06.28.12 at 10:10 am

It’s not addressed head-on, but this more or less covers it:

It was nearly impossible in Arizona to bring a case against a straw purchaser. The federal prosecutors there did not consider the purchase of a huge volume of guns, or their handoff to a third party, sufficient evidence to seize them. A buyer who certified that the guns were for himself, then handed them off minutes later, hadn’t necessarily lied and was free to change his mind. Even if a suspect bought 10 guns that were recovered days later at a Mexican crime scene, this didn’t mean the initial purchase had been illegal. To these prosecutors, the pattern proved little. Instead, agents needed to link specific evidence of intent to commit a crime to each gun they wanted to seize.

IOW, Arizona state prosecutors’ definitions of ‘a lot’ and ‘regularly’ might be the stumbling block.

10

JP Stormcrow 06.28.12 at 10:46 am

You know how it is with a Republican witch hunt, it’s not the lack of a crime that gets you, it’s the lack of a coverup.

11

rea 06.28.12 at 11:32 am

No Phil–those were federal prosecutors in Arizona, not state prosecutors.

The problem was not su much that tthe laws were inadequate as that any case would necessarily be based only on circumstantial evidence, and that the prosecutors didn’t want to take a chance on losing these cases and getting everyone sued.

why not go after these straw buyers as unlicensed gun sellers? You can sell a few guns without a license, but if you sell a lot, regularly, you need a license.

Individual buyers were hired by the cartel on a one off basis to make a one-time purchase of a bunch of guns–they weren’t making enough purchases to qualify as “selling a lot, regularly” when they disposed of the guns. They could lie on the forms they filled out at the time of purchase, claim they did not purchase for resale, and then claim that they changed their mind–and there would be no direct evidence to refute such claims. The pattern becomes obvious when you look at hundreds of cases–but it would be very difficult to persuade a judge to let the prosecution put on proofs of hundreds of cases with no obvious connection to the particular defendant on trial. Similarly, the only evidence of a connection to the drug cartel is the pattern, and no judge is going to let the prosecution start talking about drug cartels without some concrete evidence of a connection to the particular defendant on trial. And of course, a jury chosen from an Arizona jury pool would likely hate ATF and hate laws restricting gun purchase.

.

12

James 06.28.12 at 12:33 pm

This is a CBS article on the generalities of Fast and Furious:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-31727_162-57461204-10391695/a-primer-on-the-fast-and-furious-scandal/

It differs from the CNN article in that it suggest that ‘gun walking’ was an intentional part of the investigation:
“Fast and Furious” is the name ATF assigned to a group of Phoenix, Arizona-area gun trafficking cases under Project Gunrunner that began in fall of 2009. It’s the largest of several known operations in which ATF employed gunwalking, involving more than 2,000 weapons, including hundreds of AK-47 type semi-automatic rifles and .50 caliber rifles. According to sources who worked directly on the case, the vast majority of guns were not tracked and Mexico’s government was not fully informed of the case. The ATF Special Agent in Charge of the operation was Bill Newell.

The article also points out that inaccurate information was passed to congress. Whether this was a simple accident or intentional is not clear.

In its earliest response to Sen. Grassley’s questions about the gunwalking operation, the Justice Department sent a letter that contained inaccurate information. The letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, stated that ATF never “knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico.” Ten months later, the Justice Department withdrew the letter acknowledging that it contained inaccuracies. In April 2012, Weich announced his intention to resign from the Justice Department to become dean of the University of Baltimore Law School. Documents subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee, but not turned over, include Justice Department communications after the Feb. 4, 2010 letter leading up to the Dec. 2010 retraction of the inaccurate letter. Republicans in Congress want to see who-knew-when that the Feb. 4 assertion denying gunwalking was false, and why it took ten months for the administration’s retraction.

13

rea 06.28.12 at 12:56 pm

James: the problem with saying that the Justice Department was being inaccurate when it said that ATF never “knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico.” is that while ATF had concluded that the assault weapons were being sold to “straw purchasers,” the prosecutors had concluded that it could not be proven in court. It becomes almost a matter of epistemology–do you “know” something you can’t prove?

14

Roger Gathman 06.28.12 at 12:59 pm

I think the fast and furious thing is karma. After all, AG Eric Holder, the Covington and Burling attorney, never saw a corporate crime he wanted to punish. He should be impeached for inaction and covering up for his corporate client list. I guess he thought he could go after Mexicans – it is an American tradition! Made a mistake, there, I guess. Meanwhile, of course, this is the Attorney General who is more concerned that state attorney generals will actually take banks to court for presenting fraudulent documents to courts than that… well, banks massively presented fraudulent documents to courts. He is the worst. Ashcroft had more morals.
I can’t wait for the censure.

15

bjk 06.28.12 at 1:38 pm

If this is a big nothing, what is being hidden? Just release the documents. Holder could do a big Janet Reno – “man I really screwed this up” – and life would go on. Looks to me like Holder brought this on himself.

16

JP Stormcrow 06.28.12 at 1:46 pm

Sure, that’s what Democratic AGs are supposed to do after all.

17

bjk 06.28.12 at 1:48 pm

Screw up?

18

rea 06.28.12 at 2:08 pm

If this is a big nothing, what is being hidden? Just release the documents.

Because what is being withheld is not directly material about the case, it’s material about the Justice Department’s internal deliberations about the case.

19

JP Stormcrow 06.28.12 at 2:17 pm

They all screw up to some degree, but being in a Republican administration means never having to say you’re sorry, or produce documents, or stuff like that. Just a bit tired of our asymmetrical politics and discourse here in the states.

20

Tom T. 06.28.12 at 2:39 pm

It seems worth noting that of course the agents involved are going to say they did everything they could, and that any problems were the fault of the prosecutors.

21

Tom T. 06.28.12 at 2:46 pm

In today’s Washington Post, the architect of Fast and Furious gives an interview, in which he appears to say both that it was his plan not to arrest straw purchasers and that prosecutors prevented the arrest of straw purchasers. If nothing else, this seems to illustrate the difficulty of getting at the truth.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/agent-who-started-fast-and-furious-defends-operation/2012/06/27/gJQAQviT7V_story.html?hpid=z5

22

Sebastian H 06.28.12 at 2:49 pm

I’m a bit confused by the article. Is it wholly sourced to the agents accused of wrongdoing? If this version of events is correct, why don’t we have someone in the Justice department saying so? The administration line appears to be that idiots low on the totem pole allowed/facilitated gun walking, but that it wasn’t properly authorized (and would not have been authorized).

23

bexley 06.28.12 at 3:37 pm

Good news though – Obamacare survives (thanks to Chief Justice Roberts of all people).

24

ezra abrams 06.28.12 at 4:15 pm

so, the ATF agents setup up a sting, to catch people buying guns
the first couple of times they run the sting, the prosecutors say, we can’t make a case, not because you screwed up the sting or the arrest, but the laws are weak
STOP
as an ATF agent, you now
(a) keep doing stings
(b) stop doing stings untill you can fix them so the cases are good
(b) seems, in hindsight, like it should have been a no brainer….

25

bianca steele 06.28.12 at 4:51 pm

From the WP article (haven’t read the Fortune one yet), it sounds like in the best case, the agents understood what they were doing in one way, and the people at the top understood what the agents were doing in a different way. What is generally the best way to approach this kind of problem?

26

phosphorious 06.28.12 at 4:54 pm

“Because when the Supremes overturn Obamacare. . . “

Calloohs and callays are in order, I suppose: the US now has a health care policy designed by the Heritage Foundation!

27

heckblazer 06.28.12 at 5:22 pm

bjk @ 15:
“If this is a big nothing, what is being hidden? Just release the documents. Holder could do a big Janet Reno – “man I really screwed this up” – and life would go on. Looks to me like Holder brought this on himself.”

Confidential informants inside the Mexican drug cartels. At the end of the article it mentions that several of the targets of Fast and Furious were informants inside the Sinaloa Cartel. That can explain why the US attorneys were so reluctant to pursue cases. It can also explain the throwing people under the bus, as the DoJ would want the attention to disappear as a quickly as possible, and Holder not wanting to release all relevant documents as they could reference an ongoing infiltration of extremely violent criminal organizations.

28

Both Sides Do It 06.28.12 at 5:29 pm

Yes, we have an AG held in contempt because of lies and Heritage Foundation health care, with the added kicker of five members of the Court laying the groundwork for restricting the Commerce Clause and a patchwork Medicaid expansion dependent on the political whims of insane state governments.

Truly a frabjous day.

29

bjk 06.28.12 at 5:47 pm

Which is more important to Holder: a) his career or b) the Mexican drug war. I’ll bet half of Congress couldn’t identify the right continent for the Sinaloa drug gang. That’s not it.

30

mattski 06.28.12 at 6:20 pm

(I’ve got a bad feeling about this. But maybe I’m too pessimistic.)

Balls and strikes, balls and strikes.

31

lupita 06.28.12 at 6:28 pm

The War on Drugs has failed, that is clear. Of course Fast and Furious is ridiculous because it is part of a strategy that is designed to ignore money laundering, consumption, and arms trafficking in the US, all big money makers. As it is, the US has lost the support of even right-wing governments in Latin America and the generals who have been entrusted with implementing it. Now it is revealed that American agents also consider their own tactics stupid.

32

heckblazer 06.28.12 at 6:34 pm

bjk @ 28:

Holder offered a confidential briefing to Congress. Issa refused and insisted on a public release of the documents. I can’t say if Holder cares about his career more then the Mexican drug war, but he might possibly want to avoid getting people brutally murdered. Plus, it has the advantage of putting a single motive behind the hinky behavior by the DoJ in this matter.

33

Salient 06.28.12 at 6:37 pm

Like Drum says: what do I know? Not a lot about Fast and Furious, before this.

I got about as far as “no federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking” before wincing and closing the window and walking away.

Since everybody’s been throwing one another under the bus^1^ already, can we trade a unanimous contempt of Congress on Eric Holder for unanimous passage of a federal statute that effectively outlaws firearms trafficking?

^1^how many buses are there? is the DOJ stationed atop a depot? under a turtle would make more sense, since at least it’s turtles all the way down

34

heckblazer 06.28.12 at 6:42 pm

lupita @ 30:
“The War on Drugs has failed, that is clear. Of course Fast and Furious is ridiculous because it is part of a strategy that is designed to ignore money laundering, consumption, and arms trafficking in the US, all big money makers.”

A program designed to investigate arms trafficking from the US into Mexico is designed to ignore arms trafficking from the US into Mexico? Or do you mean that governments that the US supplies weapons to are so corrupt that the weapons end up in the hands of criminals?

35

phosphorious 06.28.12 at 6:42 pm

“Since everybody’s been throwing one another under the bus1 already, can we trade a unanimous contempt of Congress on Eric Holder for unanimous passage of a federal statute that effectively outlaws firearms trafficking?”

No. . . the very same conservatives who are outraged that Holder allowed these guns to wind up in the hands of criminals would be doubly outraged if he lifted a finger to stop from winding up in the hands of criminals.

A fine sentiment though.

36

Both Sides Do It 06.28.12 at 6:45 pm

Also, can’t believe no-one’s pointed this out yet: this whole thing is just The Wire’s “street rips vs. building a case against the kingpins” institutional dynamic writ large, with more partisan assholery thrown in.

37

lupita 06.28.12 at 6:57 pm

A program designed to investigate arms trafficking from the US into Mexico is designed to ignore arms trafficking from the US into Mexico?

I meant the War on Drugs purposely ignores the obvious: the US is arming the drug cartels in Mexico. Fast and Furious only entered the serial numbers of 2,000 weapons in some data base and then checks it against recovered weapons in Mexico and the US. It is obvious that the problem consists of all the gun stores along the border and the laws that permit it.

38

heckblazer 06.28.12 at 7:01 pm

lupita @ 36:
Yeah, realized that after hitting ‘post’.

39

Both Sides Do It 06.28.12 at 7:13 pm

For those interested, here’s the House report listing the signs against Holder and recommending a vote for contempt

http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CRPT-112hrp t546/pdf/CRPT-112hrpt546.pdf

If you’re a fan of literature in which one section says “the DOJ has provided a key detailing the legal reasons for each redaction in documents used in ongoing criminal investigations which has helped this chamber’s ability to conduct its oversight duties” and the following says “the DOJ has not followed this chamber’s request to create a Privilege Log to list the legal reasoning behind each redaction in documents used in ongoing criminal investigations which is an unacceptable obstruction of this chamber’s ability to conduct its oversight duties”, you’ll like this example of the genre, as it is full of that shit.

40

Sancho 06.28.12 at 11:00 pm

A section of the American right has gone a step further and declared that Fast & Furious is a plot to encourage gun violence along the Mexican border to use as an excuse to ban all gun sales.

41

JP Stormcrow 06.28.12 at 11:57 pm

Which was the basis for the NRA making it a “loyalty test” vote, and undoubtedly why two of our Western PA Dems (Altmire and Critz*) voted to censure. So, a pretty big section. For all the disingenuous craziness, racism and BS of the Republican opposition to Obama over the past four years, I think this is the first one that has really approached the heights reached during the Clinton years. This is Dan Burton shooting a melon in his backyard to shed light on Vince Foster’s suicide. The fact that we’re discussing it at all in this context** is proof that terrorists have won.

*And both now in my Congressional District…

**Certainly, like Vince Foster there is a legitimate story in there somewhere, but it sure as hell had nothing to do with today’s vote.

42

heckblazer 06.29.12 at 12:53 am

Sancho @ 11:00
“A section of the American right has gone a step further and declared that Fast & Furious is a plot to encourage gun violence along the Mexican border to use as an excuse to ban all gun sales.”

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice-president, in his article ‘Obama’s Secret Plan To Destroy The Second Amendment By 2016’:

“The only plausible explanation for “Fast and Furious” is that they wanted to somehow “prove” the administration’s false and fraudulent claims that—to quote President Obama—“more than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States.”

Darrel Issa, on “This Week”:

“We do know that during this — this Fast and Furious operation, there were e-mails in which they’re saying we can use this as part of additional reporting or things like assault weapons ban. So the people involved saw the benefit of what — what they were gathering. Whether or not that was their original purpose, we probably will never know.”

43

JPL 06.29.12 at 10:50 pm

I too had not been following this story, since it seemed like typical Republican shenanigans. But reading this post I’m getting an inkling of the, shall we say, fundamentally unserious nature of the Republican party nowadays. Let me try to summarize. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
So, it looks like there are two possible explanations for what Issa and the Republicans are doing: 1) Either they are completely cynical and have as their main aim (i.e., what they want to do, to which all thinking and strategizing is subordinated) to drum up a scandal, any scandal, involving Obama or Holder and they’re trying to make this one work for them, and they’e not interested at all in trying to solve the problem of straw- purchasers of guns or sources of weapons for Mexican drug cartels or even in sincerely performing their role of providing oversight of DOJ practices; and, among other unsavoury reasons, they are doing this because they and their enablers, plutocrat agenda- setters and fear- driven tea partiers alike, are in that Cartesian product of racists and children born out of wedlock. 2) Or, this is a demonstration that it is in fact possible to have true paranoid schizophrenia on the level of whole in-groups, since as we know, there are a lot of people who are not capable of independent thinking and can only repeat what they hear others in their group saying and mistake it for their own thought (Apparently this meme originated in the fevered brain of one blogger in Alabama with clear indications of paranoia.) (By the way, I’d be interested in making a bet with any member of this group on the inevitability of gun control legislation under Obama.); and that they truly believe that if they can only get the documents in question and make them public, they will show Holder and the Obama DOJ secretly plotting the conspiracy mentioned by Wayne LaPierre, to ban all gun sales and destroy the 2nd amendment, etc., and that this will vindicate them. This morning I happened to catch the tail end of a report on this story by Kelly O’Donnell of NBC, and she was trying mightily, under corporate strictures, to present the Republican position accurately and fairly and at the same time as something sensible and not completely insane, but inevitably failing at this last task. Oh, and the timing of the vote invites the suspicion that they were hoping, with the SCOTUS rejection of the ACA, for a one-two punch. I, certainly, and perhaps many of us perplexed onlookers in this society, seem to be condemned to live our lives confronted with this constant unresolvable ambiguity as we try to understand the ongoing phenomenon of the Republican party.

44

James 06.29.12 at 11:49 pm

JPL @43 1) Either they are completely cynical and have as their main aim 2) Or, this is a demonstration that it is in fact possible to have true paranoid schizophrenia on the level of whole in-groups

Or, now stay with me here, another possibility is that Eric Holder really did sandbag the information presented to Congress for purely political reasons. It is rather ridiculous to assume that the other political party (which is also run by career politicians) would never ever do anything questionable for political gains.

45

JP Stormcrow 06.30.12 at 12:49 am

You know what, James, I bet there actually was bit of sandbagging for political gain going on. But that says nothing about JPL’s 1) or 2) scenario which are spot on.

46

JP Stormcrow 06.30.12 at 12:51 am

Shorter James in 44: “The asymmetry of the political discourse in this country, let me demonstrate it for you.”

47

ezra abrams 06.30.12 at 4:38 am

@39
Please enlighten me – I understood a priviledge log to be a term of art; it is a list of all the documents.
A legal reason for redactions is not the same thing, no ?
Or is this legal hair splitting ?

48

Britta 06.30.12 at 6:03 am

I have to say I am a little disappointed that a blog post called “Fast and Furious?” was not about the Germany-Italy semi-final.

49

heckblazer 07.01.12 at 1:57 am

Something I think worth adding is that Darrel Issa is the guy who financed the recall effort against Gray Davis back in 2003 to with $1.7 million of his own money. Until Schwarzenegger threw his hat in the ring it was generally thought that Issa wanted to be governor himself. I tend to view him as a hack who will use any tool at his disposal to whack political enemies because IMO he already has.

50

Daragh McDowell 07.01.12 at 10:54 am

Lupita @37 – thank you! Its depressing, but not surprising, that there’s very little being written/said in US media and political elite circles (to my knowledge) about the consequences of America’s gun laws for Mexico. In addition to the ‘War on Drugs’ (aka the war to sustain narco-mafias in perpetuity) making the cartels as or more powerful than the government, the ease with which they can arm themselves has turned Mexico into a rapidly failing state. While its too much to expect moral concern and self-reflection from the Village, shouldn’t the consequences of creating Somalia on the Rio Grande be ringing a few alarm bells?

51

Earwig 07.02.12 at 1:20 pm

Sadly, it probably more rings dinner bells.

A future war? Right on our border? Delicious.

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