Thanks to Operation Fast and Furious, the incompetence and ineptitude that has infected the Holder Justice Department is becoming more obvious all the time. For department prosecutors (and senior ATF personnel) to approve the sale of firearms to Mexican drug cartels through straw buyers was a deadly misstep.
It led directly to the tragic death of Border Agent Brian Terry. Mexican officials estimate that “150 of their people have been shot by Fast and Furious guns,” Fox News reports. The obdurate refusal of Justice to provide the names of the senior Justice leadership who approved this operation at the recent House hearing held by Rep. Darrel Issa shows the willingness of Justice to cover up its mistakes and defy congressional oversight. As Issa accurately said, this growing scandal “was so felony stupid that it got people killed.”
But Operation Fast and Furious also shows how willing this administration is to deliberately mislead the press and how easily the Washington Post was conned by the administration in a story it published last year.
On December 13, 2010, the Post ran a story about U.S. gun dealers with “the most traces for firearms recovered by police.” The Post included “the names of the dealers, all from border states, with the most traces from guns recovered in Mexico over the past two years.” The Post did not reveal where it got this information, but pointed out that Congress passed a law in 2003 exempting the trace information maintained by the ATF from public disclosure. So the Post had to have gotten this information through a leak directly from the ATF (or by illegally hacking the ATF’s records, a far-fetched and highly unlikely scenario).
Two of the gun dealers the Post’s story assailed were Lone Wolf Trading Co. in Glendale and J&G Sales in Prescott, Ariz. Lone Wolf Trading is number one on the list for Mexican traces; J&G is number three.
However, at the time the ATF was apparently leaking this information to the Post, both of these dealers were cooperating with the ATF in the Fast and Furious Operation. When Fox News talked recently to the owner of J&G, Brad DeSaye, about the ATF’s disastrous operation, he said that when he questioned the ATF about whether the agency wanted the gun shop to sell to the cartel front men, the ATF said, “Keep selling.”
The Post actually interviewed DeSaye over his store’s appearance in the trace records. DeSaye, to his credit, did not reveal the still-secret ATF operation to the Post reporters, even though they were clearly writing a negative story that was potentially embarrassing to DeSaye.
This double-dealing by the ATF is appalling. It was bad enough that the ATF was running a secret operation that had gone off the rails and was supplying dangerous weapons to violent Mexican drug cartels. But then the agency apparently leaked deceptive information on gun sales that put the gun dealers in a bad light, or at a minimum, misled the Post when it should have tried to provide cover for dealers who were following ATF instructions. Indeed, these dealers were showing up in the Mexican trace information because the ATF was telling them to ignore the law and the usual verification procedures and sell guns to the cartels, sometime dozens in a single day to one person.
In an irony that could almost be considered comeuppance to the ATF, the Post story was published the day before Agent Terry was killed. Terry’s death panicked the ATF supervisors who were running Fast and Furious, a panic that was deserved after two of the weapons found at the murder scene were traced to the operation. Yet in a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley on Feb. 4, 2011, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, the same individual who testified before Issa’s committee, claimed the ATF had not “knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico.” As the whistleblower ATF agents testified, this was patently false.
This apparent leak by the administration to mislead the Washington Post was not a one-time incident. On May 26, just two weeks before the Issa hearing, La Opinión, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the United States (based in Los Angeles), published a story about the smuggling of guns from America into Mexico. The spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Attorney in Phoenix again specifically named Lone Wolf Trading, which had sold guns at the express direction of the ATF, as being responsible along with other gun dealers for “a great majority of confiscated weapons in crimes on the other side of the border.” This is the same U.S. Attorney’s Office that “encouraged and supported every single facet of Fast and Furious,” according to the Joint Staff Report prepared by Rep. Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley.
There are two final points that should be made about this fiasco. The fact that Holder sent Weich up to testify on June 15 is very revealing to anyone familiar with internal Justice procedure. Weich is the head of the Office of Legislative Affairs, the office tasked with dealing with Congress. It is not a line department directly involved in prosecutions and investigations. The Fast and Furious Operation would have been handled out of the Criminal Division, headed by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, former special counsel to Bill Clinton. Breuer (or Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke) would obviously be the witnesses with the most direct knowledge — particularly the question of who at Justice in the top leadership offices was briefed or asked for approval of the operation.
The only reason for Justice to send Weich was to send someone with no actual knowledge of who approved this operation so he could truthfully testify under oath — as he did despite tough questioning by Issa — that he did not “know the answer to that question.” The fact that the Inspector General is supposedly investigating — one of the other excuses Weich gave for not answering questions — is also not a legitimate reason to withhold information from Congress when it is exercising its constitutional oversight function.
Finally, the most obvious question that Issa, Grassley, and others have been asking is: Why would the administration implement such an obviously perilous, risky, and foolish operation that sent hundreds of dangerous weapons into Mexico?
For a possible answer, recall that in 2009 the Obama administration was making a huge public issue about the flow of guns from American gun dealers into Mexico. President Obama himself erroneously claimed at a joint press conference with President Filipe Calderon in Mexico City on April 16, 2009, that “90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border.” Everyone from William Hoover, assistant director for field operations at the ATF, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed this same claim.
The problem, however, was that the 90 percent figure was demonstrably false. Only a small portion of the guns seized by Mexican authorities have traceable serial numbers. In 2008, GAO reported that the Mexican government seized 30,000 guns, and only 6,700 were confirmed to have originated in the U.S. That represents only 22 percent, not 90 percent.
The administration’s claim was widely criticized as being wrong — which may have provided a political motivation for an ill-advised operation that poured U.S. weapons into Mexico. This could provide the administration with a public-relations coup that supported its claims when it unveiled its prosecutions. Perhaps that’s why one ATF supervisor was described as “jovial, if not, not giddy, but just delighted” [sic] when Fast and Furious guns were found at Mexican crime scenes, and why Acting Director of the ATF Kenneth Melson took such a personal interest that he watched live feeds from secret ATF cameras in guns stores while sitting at his desk.
The bottom line is that considerations other than objective, professional law enforcement judgment seem to have driven the decision-making of the Holder Justice Department. The result has been tragedy and violence — and the bloodshed will persist as these weapons continue to be used.
Update: The ATF responds to Issa’s warning…by firing a whistle-blower.