The Magazine

Lawyers, Guns, and Money

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Last December, U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered in a firefight with three Mexican nationals in Arizona. Two guns recovered at the crime scene were traced back to an ongoing Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) investigation, informally known under the code names “Gunwalker” and “Fast and Furious.”

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As part of this investigation, ATF had allowed American firearms dealers to sell more than 2,000 guns to Mexican criminal gangs with no plan to interdict or recover the guns. Several ATF agents had expressed concern about the operation. One of the firearms dealers involved had even emailed the ATF agent in charge to express concern that the operation was putting the lives of border patrol agents at risk—six months before Terry’s murder.

Thanks to some whistleblowers, there’s now a congressional inquiry into the Gunwalker operation. But, closing in on a year after Terry’s death, we still have no clear idea of what law enforcement goals Gunwalker was supposed to achieve. In a recent conference call with reporters, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chairman Darrell Issa could only conclude, “This was dumb, it was useless, and it was lethal.”

The Justice Department, meanwhile, continues to impede attempts to determine what happened. Brian Terry’s mother Josephine has been blunt about her frustration. “Justice, to us, is not beating around the bush. If the government wants to hide something, that’s what irritates us. If you made a mistake .  .  . say you did. Just say you did,” she told the Associated Press earlier this year.

So we can only imagine the outrage Josephine Terry must have felt last week, when leaked audio hit the Internet in which one of the dealers involved in the operation—now a witness for Issa’s committee—describes Brian Terry’s murder as “collateral damage,” while an ATF agent mumbles in agreement.

Josephine Terry is hardly alone in her grief. On last week’s conference call, Issa confirmed that Mexican attorney general Marisela Morales believes at least 200 murders in Mexico have been linked to Fast and Furious weapons. Over on the U.S. side of the border, authorities announced earlier this month that the alleged perpetrators of a March 2010 assault against police detectives in Phoenix used two guns linked to the scandal. More than 1,400 of the guns involved in the ATF operation have yet to be recovered.

Why hasn’t more pressure been brought to bear on the Obama administration to take responsibility for the scandal? After all, this was not the work of a handful of rogue ATF agents. In a September 9 letter to White House national security adviser Tom Donilon, Representative Issa and Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa revealed that the ATF special agent in charge of the operation was briefing the administration on the details as early as the summer of 2010.

Yet the Justice Department tried to prevent acting ATF head Kenneth Melson from cooperating with congressional investigators. He eventually testified before the Oversight Committee in July, with his own legal representation. Then, in August, the Justice Department “reassigned” him to the Office of Legal Policy.

Congressional investigators also fired off an angry letter to the Justice Department last week after Justice handed the audiotapes of conversations between witnesses to the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona rather than Congress. In the letter, Issa and Grassley worry that the department’s decision may obstruct their investigation while raising the possibility of collusion between witnesses.

As the Obama administration continues to be less than forthcoming, we’re left to speculate as to potential political motives behind this baffling and obviously dangerous operation. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to hear an explanation for the scandal until more political pressure is applied on the White House and Justice Department. Congressman Issa is rightly calling for a special investigator. But, in the meantime, national Republicans need to speak out loudly and often until the situation is resolved. American law enforcement agents have died and there’s not been a single mention of the scandal at a GOP debate. If Fast and Furious were to become a campaign issue, the president might be forced to respond.

It won’t be enough to tell Josephine Terry that mistakes were made, though she certainly deserves that and more. All Americans deserve to know how Fast and Furious happened—and, ultimately, who will be held accountable.

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