Just the facts on Fast and Furious

Nov 4, 2011, 10:35 AM ET

Weapons recovered by the Mexican military on November 20, 2009—including guns bought two weeks earlier by Operation Fast and Furious suspect Uriel Patino, who bought 723 guns during the operation.

UPDATE: In addition to this early attempt by Lanny Davis to undermine the inquiry into Fast & Furious, there was a later effort by freelance journalist Katherine Eban as well. My office asked me to appear on a radio show with her to respond to the claims in her article. That audio is available here: Listen to “What Really Happened with Fast and Furious,” On Point, WBUR (Jul 2, 2012). My appearance begins around the 29-minute mark. Later, the Congressional report included an appendix with a comprehensive rebuttal of her Jun 27, 2012 article—paragraph-by-paragraph, with citations to evidence.

Originally published by The Hill in November 2011.

In a recent column in The Hill, Lanny Davis (“Let’s Get The Facts Straight On Holder,” October 12, 2011) claimed that Republicans politicized the inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious.  Ironically, however, it is charges of partisanship like his that inject party politics where it doesn't belong.  He questioned the motives of the Members of Congress involved while at the same time criticizing those members for allegedly questioning the motives of others.

Mr. Davis claimed that there are four “facts” that Republicans making “personal attacks” on Attorney General Holder should know: (1) gunwalking at ATF began “under the George W. Bush administration,” (2) the Attorney General meant only to deny knowing about the “faulty tactics,” (3) the Attorney General can’t be expected to read all of his memos, and (4) law enforcement needs bi-partisan support rather than “political cheap shots.”

Perhaps his search for a distraction is understandable.  The facts are so clear that there isn’t much the Department and its defenders can say, other than to lash out and blame the messengers.  The fact is that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) encouraged gun dealers to sell assault rifles to known straw purchasers illegally buying on behalf of others.

The fact is that the Justice Department oversaw the operation as ATF literally watched bad guys collect hundreds of guns—week after week—for nearly a year.  

Despite the straw buyers’ clear intent to transfer the weapons to criminals and cartels south of the border, the fact is that no one was arrested.  Not until two of the guns showed up at the scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder did the government finally act on what it knew.

Those are the facts.

And, they should be disturbing to all Americans, regardless of their party affiliation. Few Democrats in Congress have said anything at all about this appalling refusal to enforce our existing gun laws.  Mr. Davis spills a lot of ink maligning the motives of Republicans in Congress for asking tough questions, but nothing is asked of others who have been conspicuously quiet.

Senator Grassley spent the first three months of this inquiry seeking answers on his own.  His sole motivation was to help the Terry family get to the truth and protect the whistleblowers who risked their careers to expose it.  Despite evidence from whistleblowers contradicting the Department’s denials, the inquiry received far too little attention until after Chairman Issa offered his assistance and began issuing subpoenas.

Was the way the Department dismissed Senator Grassley’s inquiries evidence of partisan motives—as former Acting ATF Director Ken Melson suggested—to protect its political appointees? People can draw their own conclusions.

Anyone who has spoken with Agent Terry’s family would know that respect and honor for his sacrifice is what motivates those who want to get to the bottom of what happened—not petty partisanship. This is not about Attorney General Holder.  It is about getting answers for the Terry family.

However, that sometimes means asking tough questions of senior government officials.  Just because some might take it personally doesn’t mean that asking the questions is a personal attack.

Yes, gunwalking also occurred in the 2006-2007 timeframe under an operation called Wide Receiver, and it was supervised by the head of the same ATF Field Division responsible for Fast and Furious.  Senator Grassley has been asking about the earlier operation too.  In fact, he asked the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, about it in a recent hearing. 

Mr. Breuer admitted to knowing about the gunwalking in Wide Receiver since April 2010.  He is also the first Justice Department official to admit publicly that the initial letter to Senator Grassley denying the whistleblower allegations contained a false statement.

Worse yet, Mr. Breuer knew it was false and kept silent all year as this controversy has grown.  However, he could not remember whether he had reviewed the letter before it was sent to Congress. Documents recently released by the Department show that Mr. Holder’s deputy took detailed notes on an extensive briefing about Fast and Furious as early as March 2010.  He also received briefing papers in the immediate aftermath of Agent Terry’s murder.

It’s clear that senior officials directly below the Attorney General received detailed information in connection with their responsibilities to oversee the case.  In light of this evidence, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for clarification about exactly who knew what and when.

Mr. Davis is right about one thing.  Federal law enforcement needs bi-partisan support.  That includes Agent Brian Terry and his family.  So rather than dismiss tough questions by distinguishing “Bush-era” gunwalking from more recent gunwalking, we should focus on getting all the answers out in the open.

A representative of the Terry Family recently sent a letter expressing dissatisfaction “with the answers provided by government officials to date, not only about the genesis of operation Fast and Furious, but what actually occurred precipitating Brian’s death.” 

Congressional oversight of federal law enforcement presents unique challenges.  Agencies are too often eager to avoid disclosing facts that are “law enforcement sensitive.”  While those concerns can be legitimate, our government owes it to the Terry family to be more open and transparent given the controversial circumstances surrounding his death.

So, the Justice Department should comply with the House subpoenas, cough-up the documents it’s withholding, and make witnesses available for questioning.  If senior officials at Main Justice and the White House knew nothing of consequence, then there is nothing to hide.  Attempts to politicize the investigation and discredit the investigators only serve as a distraction from a genuine search for the truth.