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.
Which leads to President Obama: how is it possible that the White House was not aware of Fast and Furious while it was occurring? We now know the following:
- The #2 man in the ATF, Acting Deputy Director William Hoover, tried to shut Operation Fast and Furious down in March of 2010 but was rebuffed.
- Officials with the Justice Department and ATF tried to evade Senator Grassley’s attempts to discover where the guns came from.
- A National Security Council (NSC) operative in the White House named Kevin O’Reilly was in direct contact with Bill Newell, the agent in charge of the operation. (Are we to believe that the benign emails released between the two men were their only Gunwalker conversations, and that O’Reilly wasn’t briefing the National Security Council or the president?)
- The U.S. attorney involved in Fast And Furious, Dennis Burke, is a long-time Napolitano ally and was her chief of staff while she was governor from 2003-2008. Burke is also on the attorney general’s Advisory Committee border and immigration law enforcement subcommittee. He recently opposed a routine filing by murdered Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s family, in a move that appears designed to protect him in criminal and civil trials regarding Gunwalker.
- Emails reveal that every law enforcement director in DOJ was briefed on Operation Fast and Furious. All have been silent on the allegations except the scapegoated Melson and the DEA administrator, who surfaced long enough to deny that her agency was involved in the criminal actions.
- The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury were involved (State and CIA have allegedly had roles in the operation, but these allegations have not been confirmed by evidence).
With this level of cooperation across at least three (Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury) departments and among at least eight directors, with long-term personal contacts between friends and political allies that have been fingered as key players in this scandal, and with the president’s own words and deeds regarding his radical views towards gun rights in this country, is it rational to believe the president and his closest advisers had nothing to do with this murderous plot?
When we see a cover-up being orchestrated, we should rationally assume that the cover-up exists to hide criminal culpability. When we see corruption spread across the highest and most connected levels of government, we should rationally assume that the person at the top, President Obama, likely was involved.
With the latest evidence, Barack Obama and his co-conspirators no longer have plausible deniability. It remains to see how they will fare with criminal culpability, as more whistleblowers come forward from Justice and DHS to avoid prison time themselves.