Congressman raises stakes in 'Fast and Furious' probe, targeting Eric Holder

Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas wants a special counsel to investigate whether Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress the truth about Operation Fast and Furious, a now-discredited gun-tracking program aimed at Mexico's drug lords.

By , Staff writer

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    Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before the House Judiciary Committee's oversight hearing on the Department of Justice, on May 13, 2010, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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Congressional Republicans want to get to the bottom of who is responsible for Operation Fast and Furious – a discredited US program intended to interrupt the flow of guns smuggled from the Southwest to Mexican drug cartels – and at least one lawmaker wants to ensure a closer look at what US Attorney General Eric Holder knew and when he knew it.

Claiming Mr. Holder may have "misled" Congress about his knowledge of the gun-interdiction operation, Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas on Tuesday asked President Obama to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether the attorney general told the truth in testimony to Congress earlier this year. The White House so far has not responded.

The Justice Department's Inspector General is already investigating Operation Fast and Furious, as is the House Judiciary Committee under Representative Smith. In addition, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa are jointly pursuing a probe. A special counsel is needed, Smith said in a letter to Mr. Obama, because the Justice Department can't effectively investigate its own boss.

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IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

Internal Justice Department memos made public this week show Holder had at least heard of Operation Fast and Furious as early at July 2010. He testified in May 2011 that he had probably learned of the program "a few weeks" before his appearance on Capitol Hill. In March 2011, President Obama characterized the operation, overseen by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE), as an ill-advised program. Its aim was to track guns smuggled from the US into Mexico, via straw buyers for the cartels, with the aim of disrupting the networks and nabbing the criminals. But instead the guns ended up in the hands of violent drug-runners, contributing to the deaths of as many as 200 Mexican nationals and, evidently, US border patrol agent Brian Terry, as well as adding to the bloodbath in Mexico's border regions.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a similar interdiction effort, called Operation Wide Receiver, occurred under President George W. Bush as early as 2006. Both programs led to indictments. Government officials have explained that the programs were born out of frustration that BATFE was prosecuting small-time arms dealers instead of hunting bigger players in the Mexican cartels.

But the programs have had no shortage of critics. National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre has even suggested that Operation Fast and Furious was ultimately intended to foment violence in order to build support in the United States for more gun control. Some gun law experts say the program may have broken federal gun-trafficking laws.

"It's a crime to obstruct Congress, and of course it's a crime to participate in international gun smuggling," Dave Kopel, a gun control expert at the conservative Independence Institute in Golden, Colo., said recently on an Independence Institute webcast. "I don't know what part of federal law allows federal officials to commit the crime of international gun trafficking." He also said, "There's a growing possibility that … there's perjury."

Revelations that the FBI and DEA were involved have raised questions about the nature of America's covert operations south of the border, and whether they're hurting or helping US security.

One problem with Operation Fast and Furious was that effective mechanism for tracing guns were never instituted. In at least two cases, smugglers who had been stopped and searched were allowed to proceed with their shipments. More than 2,000 guns ultimately "walked," meaning US agents lost track of them, and many traveled across the border. As a result, the Mexican government, which was mostly out of the loop, has called for the extradition and prosecution of US officials who signed off on the program.

The operation began in late 2009 as the US was feeling pressure from Mexico to stop the flow of arms coming from America. Justice Department officials say the details were worked out at the local BATFE level, in Phoenix, with the help of US attorney's offices. Mr. Obama said earlier this year he didn't know about the program until after Agent Terry's death Dec. 14. Two guns that US agents had lost track of were found at the crime scene.

Though memos to Holder that reference Operation Fast and Furious date back to July 2010, Holder's May testimony about when he learned of it was "consistent and truthful," Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler told news outlets Tuesday. Those references, she said, were too brief to convey much about the operation.

“As the documents provided to Congress show, not a single one of these reports referenced the controversial tactics that allowed guns to cross the border," Ms. Schmaler told the Huffington Post. "None of the handful of entries in 2010 regarding Fast and Furious suggested there was anything amiss with that investigation requiring leadership to take corrective action or commit to memory this particular operation prior to the disturbing claims raised by ATF agents in the early part of 2011."

At Congress, investigators were unimpressed by that explanation. Holder is "either incompetent or he’s misleading Congress,” Becca Watkins, press secretary for the House Oversight Committee, told Jake Tapper of ABC News.

Nor did they care that the earlier Operation Wide Receiver predated Holder's tenure. It only raised more questions about America's tactics on the border, they said.

“[W]e will get to the bottom of whether or not this practice in a smaller way may have begun on the Bush watch," Representative Issa told CNN on Tuesday. "We’re not putting it past any administration and giving anyone a pass. The American people and the people of Mexico expect us to have a zero tolerance for letting drugs come into our country or weapons go into Mexico."

The request for a special counsel, however, is not embraced by all in Congress looking into Operation Fast and Furious. Issa and Senator Grassley have resisted calling for a special prosecutor until their own investigation is finished. A special prosecutor would conduct an investigation out of the public light, which would hamper the kind of drip-drip revelations that some conservatives are hoping to use as campaign cannon fodder against Obama in next year's election.

"We don't want a Special Prosecutor, operating in secret," writes blogger James Wiles at the conservative American Thinker site. "We want a media firestorm. Let it bleed, I say."

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