In Contempt of Government Reform

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) gavels to order a mark up hearing on Capitol Hill June 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, Representative Darrell Issa successfully steered his House committee to a 23-17 party-line vote citing Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt in the Fast and Furious gun trafficking scandal. Next the full House will decide whether to discipline the nation’s top law enforcement official for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the botched firearm investigation on the Mexican border.

Did the Obama administration engage in a coverup? It certainly did not cover itself with glory in its initial responses to revelations about stupidity and failure in the Phoenix field office of the historically ineffective Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Now, though, the Justice Department has coughed up thousands of documents and fired the top management at ATF. This raises an important question: To what degree do Republicans have contempt for the important issue of reforming an incompetent federal police agency and cutting off the flow of guns to drug cartels?

Sadly, the congressional majority seems more intent on politically embarrassing the Obama administration than on overhauling gun law enforcement.

Let’s review. From late 2009 through early 2011, ATF agents in Phoenix ran an undercover investigation they code-named Operation Fast and Furious. The agents used a dubious tactic called “gun walking”: They allowed suspected “straw buyers” for Mexican drug gangs to purchase military-style semiautomatic rifles and walk away with them. The idea was that the ATF would keep track of the buyers and the contraband guns as it built a larger case against the cocaine kingpins. Alas, the ATF demonstrated the limited capacity for which it is notorious in law enforcement circles. The guns walked straight across the Mexican border—2,000 of them. Several turned up at crime scenes, including two found in December 2010 at the site of the murder of a Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry. A debacle of the first order, no doubt.

Last year, Issa, a California Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, launched an entirely justified investigation into what went wrong. In February 2011, the Justice Department, which oversees ATF, sent a letter to Congress claiming that the gun trafficking agency always tried to interdict illegally purchased firearms. That wasn’t correct, and by the end of the year the Justice Department acknowledged as much. Holder began an internal inspector general investigation into the matter and surrendered documents demanded by Issa—a total of 7,600 documents so far. Issa wants yet more information: specifically, internal e-mails related to the Justice Department’s since-rescinded February 2011 letter.

The White House on Wednesday asserted “executive privilege,” a hotly disputed doctrine that the executive branch cannot be forced by Congress to disclose confidential communications when doing so would harm sensitive operations. Issa’s response was the committee vote to hold Holder in contempt of Congress, the first such citation for a Cabinet member in 14 years. Republican leaders said the full House will vote on the measure next week, setting up a potential referral of the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., and a constitutional kerfuffle that could find its way to the Supreme Court (see Bloomberg News coverage, with commentary from all sides, here).

The crucial background to all of this is a conspiracy theory: that the real purpose of Fast and Furious was to fuel drug violence in Mexico, blame it on the sale of military-style semiautomatic rifles, and seek to reinstate the so-called assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Here’s how Rush Limbaugh explains the theory:

“The whole point of Fast and Furious was to create mayhem in Mexico among drug cartels with American-made weapons easily procured so that you and I would stand up in outrage and demand tighter gun laws. It was deceitful. It was sneaky. It was going against the will of the American people. It was liberalism on parade. It’s who these people are. They want tighter gun laws. Folks, I want to make this as simple as I can. They created crimes.”

Issa himself has suggested that Fast and Furious had something to do with imposing stricter gun control in the U.S.: “[Assistant Attorney General] Lanny Breuer, Eric Holder come from a wing—certainly Lanny Breuer led the charge on the assault weapons ban,” Issa told the Daily Caller, a conservative news website. “Many of the people in the chain of Fast and Furious have a disregard for Second Amendment rights and a belief that they have to limit beyond what the courts have upheld—people’s rights to keep and bear arms.”

The problem with this conspiracy theory is that it makes no sense. As I wrote last fall in an in-depth feature article for Bloomberg Businessweek titled “The Guns That Got Away,” ATF agents in Arizona actually began their gun-walking antics back in the George W. Bush administration, circa 2006-2007. The initial version of this bone-headed investigation was called Operation Wide Receiver, and it resulted in ATF losing track of hundreds of guns headed for the Mexican drug wars. In other words, the ATF has managed to lose weapons under a conservative, pro-Second Amendment administration, just as it managed to fumble away guns under President Obama. Amazing how this simple point gets lost in all the shouting.

Republicans’ fascination with Fast and Furious, to the exclusion of Wide Receiver, hints at partisan motives rather than a genuine desire to clean up ATF, an agency that richly deserves more oversight of its operational abilities.

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