Rep. Darrel Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee, has led the now 16-month old investigation into who knew what, and when, about an ill-advised gun interdiction scheme on the border called Fast and Furious.
The effort, says Mr. Issa, is to get answers for the family of Brian Terry, the Border Patrol agent shot and killed in a high desert shootout where guns belonging to the Fast and Furious gun-walking program were found.
But as Congress moves now to cite the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, for contempt, the situation has quickly become more intense, fueling a central and long-running conspiracy theory about Fast and Furious.
Along with conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Issa suggested as late as April that Fast and Furious may have been part of a policy by the White House to flood the Mexican market with guns to foment violence, which would then put political pressure back on the US to curb its wide-open border gun bazaar and weaken Second Amendment rights.
That contention, liberals say, is on its face absurd. Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert summed up the extent of the alleged conspiracy on Friday, concluding Fast and Furious-spawned border violence was intended “to panic Americans in order to gin up support for a Draconian gun control measure Obama has never introduced. Complicated? Yes. The fevered ramblings of a syphilitic brain? Perhaps.”
But the “worse than Watergate” internet rumblings aside, last week’s Oversight Committee vote – which fell along partisan lines – to recommend Holder for a House vote on contempt and President Obama’s decision on the same day to invoke executive privilege to keep related documents secret did enliven debate about what’s really at stake with the investigation. To wit, whether the documents Congress wants and that the Administration won’t release may be able to confirm or put to rest suspicions that not just Holder, but Obama, had a policy hand in Fast and Furious.
In opening the contempt hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Issa contended that, “[The contempt hearing] is not about this investigation, it’s about a narrow subset of documents that this committee must ultimately receive.”
But in April, Issa gave an interview at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, in which he gave credence to suspicions held by many conservatives and gun owners about the program’s true intent.
“Could it be that what they really were thinking of was in fact to use this walking of guns in order to promote an assault weapons ban?” Rep. Issa said. “Many think so. And [the administration] hasn’t come up with an explanation that would cause any of us not to agree.”
Loosely based on two similar operations that took place during the Bush administration, Fast and Furious began in 2009, shortly after administration officials, including Obama, several times cited in public a contested estimate that 90 percent of guns used in Mexican violence came from the US, a situation they said was wreaking havoc in Mexico and injuring relations between the two continental powers.
Around that time, the administration says, ATF agents in Phoenix, under pressure to stem the flow, began allowing straw purchasers to “walk” assault weapons into Mexico, in order to track the guns and build criminal cases against not just low-level drug operators, but cartel bosses.
But in the process, ATF lost track of 1,400 guns, some of which have been recovered at murder scenes in Mexico and two of which were found at the scene in Arizona where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was gunned down by suspected drug smugglers.
To be sure, Holder, who has testified nine times about the program, has made some slips, including the fact that he told Congress he didn’t know about the program until after the death of Agent Terry, though it now seems clear that some of his direct reports may have had rudimentary knowledge of the program 10 months earlier.
Another event that piqued Republican interest came last year when Holder had to retract a letter sent to Congress on Feb. 4, 2011, which stated flatly that the ATF wasn’t allowing guns to walk. DOJ said it was relying on inaccurate field reports when it wrote that letter, and filled Congress in six months later when they could confirm and nail down the truth.
In the aftermath, both Holder and the President have acknowledged the gambit was a terrible idea, shouldn’t have happened, and won’t happen again. Though he contends he was never directly involved, Holder, as Obama’s top cop, has taken responsibility and apologized to the family of Agent Terry for his death. Meanwhile, half a dozen involved agents and officials have lost their jobs or been reassigned.
While tens of thousands of documents are in play, Congress say it wants to look specifically at a set of 1,300 documents, mostly emails, that investigators hope will shed light on who at Justice and the White House were directly involved. Holder has maintained that releasing some of the documents Congress wants could put cases and field agents in jeopardy.
At the least, the contents of the documents could fall short of conspiracy but still yield politically embarrassing information about how the administration crafted its response to the scandal, giving rise to charges that Republicans are on an irrational “fishing expedition” for political dirt.
“Though it’s not clear exactly what these documents may involve, it seems likely they consist of the Department of Justice’s reaction to the backlash against Fast and Furious,” writes Matthew DeLuca of the Daily Beast.
Given that most Americans “hold Congress in contempt,” as Duke University political scientist Michael Munger says, the President has portrayed the constitutional showdown as part of a running battle with obstinate Republicans, a situation he certainly elevated by stepping in to block the Congressional subpoena with executive privilege.
"The Republicans are succeeding in a strategy that they laid out for all of you at the beginning of last year," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday. "They vowed to use their investigative powers to score political points against the administration and to further obstruct the President's legislative agenda."
Democrats on the Oversight Committee on Saturday filed a “minority view” to be included in next week’s scheduled contempt vote, noting specifically that, “The Committee’s investigation of ATF gunwalking operations has been characterized by a series of unfortunate and unsubstantiated allegations against the Obama Administration that turned out to be inaccurate.”
But while the political lines around Fast and Furious are thus clearly drawn, allusions to Watergate-sized conspiracy theories do, at the very least, also help bolster Issa’s central point: If only to quell such theories, Americans deserve to know whether it was really a hapless bureaucratic blunder or whether administration officials lied about the extent of their involvement in what became a deadly scandal.