I first ran into the concept of plausible deniability during my freshman year of college. A definition:
The term most often refers to the denial of blame in (formal or informal) chains of command, where upper rungs quarantine the blame to the lower rungs, and the lower rungs are often inaccessible, meaning confirming responsibility for the action is nearly impossible. In the case that illegal or otherwise disreputable and unpopular activities become public, high-ranking officials may deny any awareness of such act or any connection to the agents used to carry out such acts.
I was reading Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger at the time, a novel that hinged on a fictional president deciding to change the war on drugs by descending into illegal covert activity.
Twenty-two years later, we are contemplating whether a sitting and all-too-real American president can claim plausible deniability for Operation Fast and Furious, Operation Castaway, and two unnamed but alleged operations in Texas that make up the Gunwalker scandal, which threatens to bring down the administration of Barack Obama.
The public scandal began when ATF whistleblowers disclosed that a multi-agency federal law enforcement operation in Arizona — Operation Fast and Furious — supplied weapons found at the crime scene of murdered U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
It was quickly revealed that federal law enforcement officers, supervisors, and administration appointees ensured that straw purchasers would be able to purchase weapons intended for the Sinaloa drug cartel without the threat of arrest. As federal agents watched — essentially acting as cartel security — 2,020 firearms were purchased, and the majority of them were “walked” by straw purchasers into the hands of the violent drug gang.
Mexican authorities claim that an estimated 150 Mexican law enforcement officers and soldiers, plus an unknown number of civilians have been murdered with weapons “walked” under the eyes of the federal task force. Three U.S. federal agents have also been shot in crimes using Fast and Furious weapons. Two died.
Initially, the Obama administration attempted to scapegoat acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson. When that failed, they colluded with the Washington Post and later possibly the New York Times on attempted character assassinations of Congressman Darrell Issa. Issa, along with Senator Charles Grassley, is leading the charge to investigate the scandal.
A month following Melson’s testimony to Issa’s committee, the Gunwalker landscape has changed considerably. Emails have been unearthed, additional figures with inside knowledge of the operation are testifying, and more congressmen and senators have joined the probe of the Department of Justice to see just how wide and high the administration’s knowledge of and participation in the gunwalking program — or programs — truly went.
All of these evolving disclosures are increasing the pressure on administration officials such as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, both of whom simply must have known of the operations considering the high-level collaboration between multiple agencies under their control.