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January 20, 2012

Too Fast, too Furious

Controversial gun-trafficking operation within the ATF reveals government incompetence.

From its messy raid of the Branch Davidian ranch in Waco to its sexual harassment of female gun buyers, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) always seems to attract controversy. So when the calamitous “Operation Fast and Furious”—a controversial gun trafficking investigation within Project Gunrunner, the ATF’s program intended to reduce the flow of firearms into Mexico—came to light, no one in the know was particularly shocked. In this operation, over 2,000 guns, many of which were assault weapons, were effectively allowed by the U.S. government to be sold to the Mexican drug cartels. As of this writing, fewer than 700 of these guns have been recovered; at least one U.S. border official, 20 Mexican policemen, and 300 Mexican citizens have been murdered with these guns. There has not yet been a single high profile arrest or conviction.

While there is nothing necessarily wrong with a catchy title, the idea of naming an ATF operation after a series of films that glorifies the breaking of many laws that the ATF implicitly supports seems suspect. In Fast Five, the most recent film in the series, an antagonist-turned-ally DEA Agent betrays the U.S. government by joining a band of carjacking criminals—the protagonists—and breaking into a police station. Quite frankly, Operation Fast and Furious was no less crazy or unrealistic.

The first part of the operation, in which guns were sold to straw buyers on behalf of larger drug cartels, went extremely well. In fact, one of the straw buyers alone purchased over 600 guns. In the end, 2,020 guns sold were filtered back to Mexican gangs. Unfortunately, the phase of the operation during which the guns were to be tracked and monitored failed. A large majority of the guns is still missing.

The aftermath of these “unintended” consequences was predictable considering the ATF’s track record. But the question begs to be asked: Just how unintended were these consequences? Throughout the operation, there had to have been a decided lack of oversight. The U.S. government had no place in facilitating the sale of weapons to its enemies. It is clear now that the U.S. government never had an effective way to monitor these guns. Alarm bells should have gone off more quickly given the sensitivity of the operation, and it is disappointing that they did not within the ATF.

Next is the issue of the subsequent congressional hearing, which saw Representative Darrell Issa accuse Attorney General Eric Holder of possibly being in contempt of Congress. Holder initially denied knowledge of the operation in a letter sent to the Congressional investigation, but the letter was later withdrawn for containing inaccurate information. When asked the difference between lying and misleading Congress by Representative James Sensenbrenner, Holder responded, “It all has to do with your state of mind, and whether or not you had the requisite intent to come up with something that can be considered perjury or a lie.” This seems to be a pretty egregious dodge: at best legalese, at worst just a lie about a lie. Holder was lying to duly elected representatives that were trying to serve the American people. While, in some nations, opaque government and flat out lies from authority figures are to be expected, it is profoundly disappointing that this could happen so flagrantly in the United States.

Just as insidious are the leaked Department of Justice memos concerning policy decisions affected by Operation Fast and Furious. It was recently bandied about Congress that relatively loose gun laws have led to violence in Mexico. What has become clear is that many of these guns have been sold as part of Fast and Furious. Thus, in a dizzying about-face, the gun sellers once conscripted by the ATF are now being punished for that very thing. The ATF wants to put into place stronger regulations on selling weapons called “Demand Letter 3,” which were supposed to make it more difficult to buy guns. When interviewed by CBS, National Shooting Sports Foundation Spokesman Larry Keane said that it was “deeply troubling” that gun sellers “voluntarily cooperating with ATF’s flawed Operation Fast and Furious were going to be used by some individuals within ATF to justify [Demand Letter 3].” Senator Chuck Grassley also commented, “There’s plenty of evidence showing that this administration planned to use the tragedies of Fast and Furious as a rationale to further their goals of a long gun reporting requirement.” This is an insult to the intelligence of the American people, as well as to the integrity of the U.S. government. The current administration has a policy it wants passed and has now shown it is willing to lie to the public to accomplish that end. It sounds similar to the plot of a generic action movie in the vein of the operation’s namesake: An all-powerful government, trying to take away the rights of citizens through smoke and mirrors, is thwarted by its own henchmen.

What is really surprising is the lack of media coverage both on the airwaves and in print that this scandal has had. Bigjournalism.com did an excellent exposé on the lack of coverage. Neither the New York Times nor Washington Post covered Operation Fast and Furious, with both focusing instead on Rick Perry’s father’s ranch home. NBC News, on the night following a heated exchange between Representative Issa and Holder, reported about dogs, squirrels, concussions, and cereal.

Lies, deceit, and a lack of comprehension have seemed endemic in Operation Fast and Furious, as has the lack of professionalism of the Department of Justice. What is most amazing to me is that this story even happened. Whenever I explain Operation Fast and Furious to someone, their response is either disbelief or hysterical laughter. To think so ridiculous an operation and cover-up could actually happen in the United States is utterly shameful.

Eric Wessan is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.

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