Last Wednesday, the White House stunned observers by asserting executive privilege in its refusal to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal that resulted in the death of U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry. The day before, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign sent out a missive attacking GOP super-PACs for not revealing their donors. The message is clear: The president thinks transparency is a good thing if it allows him to bully citizens who give money to his political opponents. But what about transparency and accountability in the case of a law enforcement agent who died because his government allowed Mexican criminal gangs to acquire thousands of guns from U.S. dealers for reasons it declines to explain? According to a statement from Terry’s parents, “President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege serves to compound this tragedy.”
The extraordinary use of executive privilege suggests the administration is attempting to cover up some damning political motive behind the Fast and Furious operation. If it’s not a political cover-up, why can’t the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) give Americans a legitimate law enforcement reason for arming known criminals with sniper rifles and crates of grenades, much less failing to keep track of the weapons?
Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to cooperate with congressional investigators shows why he deserves to be held in contempt of Congress, a move expected this week. He’s accused of withholding 92 percent of the relevant documents from investigators, ignoring subpoenas, and silencing Justice Department employees. Holder’s most recent behavior continues to erode confidence. In the weeks leading up to the June 20 vote by the House Oversight Committee recommending Holder be held in contempt, the attorney general implausibly argued that Justice Department documents that use the words “Fast and Furious” don’t actually refer to the Fast and Furious operation. Holder was also forced to retract his claim that the Bush administration’s last attorney general, Michael Mukasey, had been briefed on the gunrunning.
While Holder might have self-serving reasons for stonewalling Congress, it’s less clear why the president would stick his neck out for the attorney general’s indefensible behavior in an election year. So far the media have mostly ignored the evidence that a gun control agenda might be behind the operation. CBS News reported in December that emails show top ATF officials discussed highlighting questionable arms purchases made as part of Fast and Furious to deceptively make the case for a new regulation requiring firearms dealers to report certain gun purchases. The president put a very similar regulation into effect by executive order in June last year.
The timeline of the scandal is also highly suggestive of political motivations. In April 2009, the new president held a joint press conference with Mexican president Felipe Calderón decrying the flow of guns from the United States into Mexico. (The president later took a great deal of heat for using exaggerated statistics in the press conference to make the gun-trafficking problem sound worse than it is.) According to the House Oversight Committee, the Fast and Furious operation is said to have been “authorized at the highest levels of the Justice Department” in the fall of 2009. In May 2010, ATF agent John Dodson, distraught by the pointlessness of the operation, asked his supervisors if they “were prepared to attend the funeral of a slain agent or officer after he or she was killed with one of those straw-purchase firearms.” Brian Terry was killed by a Fast and Furious gun in December, and a disgusted Dodson finally blew the whistle. Details of the gunrunning scandal started to trickle out in late January 201l. In February 2011, the Mexican government filed Foreign Agents Registration Act paperwork with the Justice Department to retain a U.S. law firm in order to sue American citizens and companies over “the illegal manufacture, import/export, or sale of weapons, or other conduct that may be harming Mexico.” The congressional investigation of Fast and Furious began in earnest in the spring of 2011. Curiously, the Mexican government’s plan to pursue civil suits in U.S. courts over gun trafficking does not appear to have progressed as the Fast and Furious scandal began generating headlines.
The White House is welcome to disprove this explanation, but it adamantly refuses to provide Brian Terry’s mother with a full accounting for her son’s death. “My son was a person that believed in justice, and he believed in telling the truth. He was a man of his honor,” Josephine Terry recently told a Philadelphia radio station. Every day that our nation’s top law enforcement officers stonewall on Fast and Furious is a reminder that some of them don’t share those same ideals.