Good evening everybody and welcome to In The News. Thanks for being with us tonight. I would like to spend some time talking today about a controversy that you may have seen in the news in recent weeks. It’s a controversy that has been around for a while (about 18 months now), but recent events have brought it to the forefront of the news. And if you’re like me you’re maybe not too clear on the details and you may be asking yourself, “just what is this issue all about?” Well, I’d like to try and answer that question today and go over some of the details of the story. The topic I’m talking about of course, is Fast and Furious.
Now, one of the recent events that caught my attention on this issue was the announcement that the House had voted to, that’s the House of Representatives, had voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. A move that is not very common. In fact it’s unprecedented in our nation’s history. A sitting Attorney General, as a matter of fact, a sitting cabinet member of any kind has never been held in contempt of Congress before. And Attorney General Holder was voted in contempt for failing to hand over documents that a Congressional committee who is investigating the matter had requested.
Now, for his part, Attorney General Holder contends that his department, the Justice Department, has tried to cooperate as fully as possible with the investigation. He cites the fact that to date he’s handed more than 7,000 documents over to the Committee. Now, the Committee in question is the House Oversight Committee. And it says it needs the additional documents to complete its investigation. It also claims that most of the documents already handed over are heavily redacted and so are of very little use. Now, redacted means that the documents have some information removed or blacked out so that they are not legible. It’s a process that is used when someone wishes to disclose certain information in a document while keeping other parts of the document confidential.
The President also was dragged into the debate recently when in order to save Attorney General Holder from having to submit those documents, he claimed executive privilege.
So what exactly is the issue? And what exactly is Fast and Furious? Let’s go into a little background. So, it’s estimated that roughly $10 billion, that’s billion with a “B,” worth of illegal drugs are smuggled into this country from and through Mexico every year. And actually $10 billion is on the low end of estimates. I’ve seen estimates in doing research on this topic that go as high as a $100 billion. So, we’re talking vast amounts of money. Mexican Drug Cartels make billions of dollars a year controlling the various drug routes into the United States. Because so much drugs move into this country, these drug operations and routes are worth fortunes. And so to protect them drug cartels use any means necessary. Invariably that means violence. Violence in the form of intimidation when it comes to civilians and public officials. And violence toward rival drug cartels. In order to carry out this violence, drug cartels need guns. And lots of them.
Now, guns are practically illegal in Mexico. It’s very hard for ordinary citizens to get their hands on firearms. Government bureaucracy and paperwork are very difficult to navigate, and the availability is basically non-existent. There are virtually no gun stores in Mexico. So for all intents and purposes guns in Mexico are illegal. The only way drug cartels can get their hands on the weapons they need is to smuggle them in from the U.S. The availability and relative ease of purchase make it the logical source. So drug cartels hire people in this country to pose as law-abiding buyers to buy weapons for them. They’re called straw purchasers by law enforcement officials. They buy the weapons, hand them over to the cartels, and then the cartels smuggle these weapons back into Mexico. So illegal drugs get smuggled in and weapons get smuggled back out. And these weapons are very often used to fight the very law enforcement officers that are trying to stem the tide of illegal drugs moving in to the country.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is the agency in charge of combating the illegal flow of weapons back into Mexico. Between 2006 and 2011, the ATF, as it is known for short, set up a series of sting operations whereby known straw purchasers were allowed to purchase weapons intended for smuggling back into Mexico. This process is known as “gunwalking” or letting guns walk. The theory was, to follow these guns up the chain of command of these drug cartels and hopefully be able to bring charges against high ranking cartel officials, instead of just low level delivery people or foot soldiers. It’s believed that the ATF came up with these operations in response to criticism that the agency spent too much time and effort targeting small time gun-violators, and not enough time and effort targeting gun smuggling masterminds.
So, out of this desire Fast and Furious was born. It was the largest of these gunwalking operations. In case you are wondering, as I was, it is named after the popular Hollywood movies. It was given that codename because some of the targeted gun traffickers operated out of an auto garage, and also street raced. So that’s how it got that name. It was started in 2009 and it’s estimated that throughout the life of the operation, about 2000 weapons were involved. Problem is, to date it is believed that only 700 weapons out of those 2000 have been recovered.
In the months after the operation began, guns sold in Fast and Furious began showing up at crime scenes on both sides of the US-Mexico border. The ATF had lost track of most of the weapons. But no one at the ATF went public about the origins of the weapons or their involvement in Fast and Furious. On Dec. 14, 2010 US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed while on duty along the US-Mexico border in Arizona. Two of the guns found at the scene were traced back to operation Fast and Furious. Still no one at the ATF went public with the news.
Now, soon after Agent Terry’s death, several ATF agents began anonymously posting their concerns about the operation online on blogs and various websites. Several agents then reached out to Senator Chuck Grassley, who is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In January 2011, Sen. Grassley wrote a letter to then director of the ATF Kenneth Melson requesting information on the operation.
In February of that year, about a month later, the Justice Department responded basically with denials. They said that the claims that the ATF knowingly sanctioned gunwalking operations are false, and that the ATF makes every effort to prevent weapons that have been purchased illegally from being smuggled into Mexico. A claim that later would be proven false.
Soon after, Congress opened hearings on the matter. In May of 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder testified in front of the House Oversight Committee and said that he heard of Fast and Furious only within a few weeks of that date. That he’d only known about it for a few weeks. But memos addressed to Mr. Holder that turned up in the investigation and were dated as far back as 10 months earlier, show discussion of the operation and cite Fast and Furious by name. The Justice Department has since said that Attorney General Holder didn’t read those memos. That the memos never mention gunwalking specifically, and that Attorney General Holder was unaware that gunwalking was part of any such operation.
The Congressional committee, in order to further its investigation, asked the Justice Department to hand over internal documents regarding the plan. To date, the Justice Department has cooperated and handed in over 7,000 documents to Congress. But there are still more documents that the Committee is requesting. These have to do with internal communications within the Justice Department. They cover the period of time from when officials first denied knowledge of gunwalking, until the end of 2011 when officials acknowledged that gunwalking had taken place.
Attorney General Holder refused to hand over these additional documents. His contention was that the Justice Department had cooperated to a level that was unprecedented up until that point. And that the documents in question had no bearing on the investigation whatsoever. That they concerned only internal communications between officials at the Justice Department. His position was that the only reason to request these documents was if the Committee was looking not for the facts, but for something that they could use to embarrass the department with.
The Committee of course, responded that these documents were necessary to continue its investigation. On June 20th, the committee recommended that the House of Representatives hold Mr. Holder in contempt if he fails to hand these documents over. Immediately after, President Obama asserted Executive Privilege in order to keep the documents classified.
The Committee blasted the President’s decision to protect these documents, as you might’ve expected. And the plans for the contempt vote moved forward. And last week, on June 28th, the House voted and found Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress. The vote was largely along party lines with a few democrats joining the Republican majority.
For me, it’s clear that Fast and Furious was not soundly thought out. Eric Holder himself says that the operation was “flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution.” And that it was. If there were no mechanisms in place to track the weapons after they got into Mexico, just how did the ATF expect to trace them to these “higher ups” in the drug Cartels? Waiting to see where they were going to “end up” was a questionable strategy, as it’s reported was the plan. Where they were going to end up, in all likelihood, were crime scenes where they would be abandoned after being used on innocent victims, law enforcement officials or rival cartel members. At that point, it would be too late to glean any information from them. ATF officials failed to even notify their counterparts in the Mexican government that these operations were underway. A choice that makes the strategy seem even more shortsighted.
But it offends me that Republicans in Congress are claiming that this is not about politics. That it’s about Congressional oversight. If the President were a Republican and the Attorney General part of a Republican administration, would Congress have pushed this hard for a contempt vote? If I had to guess, I would guess no. It’s hard to excuse the actions of the ATF. It’s hard to see what choice their actions have left Congressional Republicans but to investigate this issue. But let’s not pretend this is about oversight. It should be. And above all else it should be about providing answers to Agent Brian Terry’s family. But I’m afraid like every other issue these days it’s simply become about politics.
Well that’s our show for this evening. Thanks for tuning in. Please check our page at blogtalkradio.com/inthenews for dates and times of our upcoming shows. And remember to follow us on twitter at twitter.com/inthenews1. See you next time everybody. Good night.