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Issa Calls Holder to Account

How bad does Project Gunrunner get?

by
Patrick Richardson

Bio

May 7, 2011 - 12:00 am

On May 3, Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) managed to haul Attorney General Eric Holder in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where he is the chairman, to discuss “Project Gunrunner.”

Project Gunrunner was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) operation in which as many as 2,000 firearms were allegedly allowed to walk across the Mexican border in an attempt to track down the “big fish” in the gun trafficking rings — and, presumably, the drug cartels. The attempt not only failed but, according to Issa, resulted in the deaths of two federal agents.

Issa had previously subpoenaed documents and personnel from the Department of Justice and from ATF — and was flatly refused.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Holder claimed in his testimony Tuesday that it was not the policy of the DoJ to allow weapons across the border. Or, to be more specific, he attempted to claim this, in a sentence which was very carefully parsed:

Under no circumstances should guns be allowed to be distributed in an uncontrolled manner.

Of course, the goal of Project Gunrunner — and Operation Fast and Furious — was to allow those weapons across the border in a very carefully controlled manner and to track them.

The program began in 2009, but Holder said he’d only become aware of it in recent weeks and refused to say how far up the chain of command the decision to implement the program went.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Issa asked Mr. Holder whether he or his top lieutenants were aware of the tactics. Mr. Holder didn’t say who signed off on the program, dubbed “Fast and Furious,” or how high up the chain the approval went. He said he became aware of it only in recent weeks.

In a strongly worded letter sent earlier this week, Issa and Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, essentially accused Holder of lying to Congress:

In its latest denial, the Department seems to focus more on whether ATF knew guns were being trafficked to Mexico than whether the ATF knew they were being purchased by straw buyers. While it might be typical in Washington for lawyers to narrowly parse statements and argue over fine distinctions to confuse the issue, those are not the kind of answers that we believe the Justice Department should give to Congress when asked straightforward questions about such a serious matter as this one.

We are extremely dissapointed that you do not appear to be taking this issue seriously enough to ensure that the Department’s representations are accurate, forthcoming and complete. We will continue to probe and gather the facts independently as it has become clear we cannot rely on the Department’s self-serving statements to obtain any realistic picture of what happened.

Grassley went so far as to pen a hand-written postscript under his signature block:

PS: You should check to see if you are getting accurate information from your staff. You might be ill-served.

According to a story originally broken by CBS News earlier this year, the operation was designed to allow “straw buyers” (who purchase the weapons for someone else) to buy high quality weapons, including .50 caliber sniper rifles, from cooperating licensed dealers in the U.S. ATF would then track those weapons and hopefully take down the gun-running rings and perhaps the cartels as well.

Some of those weapons were allegedly used by criminals to murder Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata.

An assertion which Holder said he found “offensive”:

The notion that somehow or another that this Justice Department is responsible for those deaths — that assertion is offensive.

As The Daily Caller reports, a combative Issa fired back:

What if it’s accurate, Mr. Attorney General? What am I going to tell Agent Terry’s mother about how he died at the hand of a gun that was videotaped as it was being sold to a straw purchaser fully expecting it to end up in the hands of drug cartels?

What’s offensive is Holder trying to parse his way out of admitting his department screwed up by the numbers. Fox News is now reporting:

An internal memo from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that U.S. officials allowed criminals to buy 1,318 guns worth nearly $1 million, even after they suspected the buyers were working for Mexican drug cartels, and that the agency’s effort to stop the guns had “yielded little or no results.”

The program would have been worth it had they even caught one of the major traffickers, or managed to trace them back to the cartels. As tragic as the deaths of Agents Terry and Zapata were, they would at least have had some meaning. But as Issa asked, even though there are 20 cases which were part of the program going to trial in June,

Isn’t it true that those 20 cases going to trial in June are basically a bunch of meth addicts who were straw buying? You don’t have the kingpins. What you have are the people you already had.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports the Obama administration was trying to curb the sales of firearms to Mexico by putting new restrictions on gun stores in the four states bordering Mexico at the same time that the ATF was asking gun stores to make sales they knew were illegal.

In a bid to curb the flow of guns into Mexico, where drug cartels have waged deadly wars to protect their business, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has sought to tighten reporting requirements in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California.

Of course, in Arizona, at least, the dealers were reporting such purchases — and were mightily concerned about who was buying them and where they might be going.

It is beyond comprehension that a program such as this was not personally signed off on by Eric Holder. It strains credulity to believe that a program such as this, which could have a profound effect on U.S.-Mexican relations, did not have the approval of the State Department, at bare minimum, and likely the White House as well.

Holder will also testify in front of Grassley’s committee — where, presumably, he will also face tough questions. It all comes down to this: how high does this go? Who knew about it, and when did they know it? America needs answers.

Patrick Richardson has been a journalist for almost 15 years and an inveterate geek all his life. He blogs regularly at www.otherwheregazette.com, which aims to be like another SF magazine, just not so serious.
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