'Fast and Furious' Scandal Returns to Haunt Obama

Attorney General Holder testifies last week on Capitol Hill Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Fast and Furious is back. As if the Obama Administration needed an additional problem, the U.S. Justice Department inspector general said Monday that one of the department’s politically appointed officials retaliated against a whistleblower by leaking derogatory information to a Fox News television producer.

Named for a misbegotten federal gun-trafficking investigation that began in Arizona in 2009, Fast and Furious eerily foreshadowed themes now casting ominous shadows over Obama’s second term—and warming the cockles of vengeful Republican hearts. Chief among these themes is the administration’s habit of exacerbating operational calamities—a lethal attack on a poorly secured U.S. outpost in al Qaeda country, for example; a leak of counterterrorism secrets; or a dysfunctional, overreaching IRS bureaucracy—by crudely attempting to stage-manage the fallout and deflect blame.

In the process, Team Obama enmeshes itself more deeply in failures, which, if viewed dispassionately, are the sort of breakdowns that are bound to occur from time to time in a complicated world. The White House also provides Republicans with a steady supply of ammunition to obstruct Obama’s substantive initiatives.

During the two-year Fast and Furious operation, agents in Arizona with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed the sale of more than 2,000 guns to suspected criminals thought to be linked to Mexican drug gangs. The ATF planned to trace the guns over the border as part of an investigation of the violent cartels. In a stupendous demonstration of incompetence, however, the ATF agents failed to track the contraband firearms. The debacle came to light after two of the guns turned up at the scene of a shootout in which a U.S. Border Patrol agent died. This debacle led to a partisan-tinged congressional investigation focusing primarily on Attorney General Eric Holder’s reluctance to disclose documents about the Justice Department’s response to Fast and Furious.

Largely lost in all the Republican vituperation and Justice Department defensiveness is the deeply troubling fact that Fast and Furious was not an invention of the Obama administration. As I reported in a Bloomberg Businessweek feature article, “The Guns That Got Away,” (November 17, 2011), Fast and Furious was preceded by an alarmingly similar bungled gun-trafficking investigation called Operation Wide Receiver, which began during the Bush administration. In other words, the ATF had been letting guns “walk” across the border for years—and kept doing it even after Wide Receiver devolved into a fiasco. (The main subject of my piece, a gun dealer named Mike Detty, who worked with the ATF as a confidential informant during Wide Receiver, has published a memoir about the experience.)

All of which brings us to why Fast and Furious has returned: the Justice Department IG report detailing how former Phoenix-based U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke violated department policy by giving a Fox News producer a memo about an ATF agent named John Dodson, who had testified before Congress about his agency’s missteps. “There was substantial evidence that Burke’s motive for disclosing the memorandum was to retaliate against Special Agent Dodson, who two weeks earlier had testified before a Congressional committee regarding his concerns about Operation Fast and Furious,” IG Michael Horowitz said in his report. Horowitz called Burke’s conduct “particularly egregious” because it aimed at undermining Dodson’s disclosures to lawmakers. Burke was forced to resign in August 2011. He later acknowledged responsibility for leaking the Dodson memo.

One of the most intriguing passages in the Horowitz review describes why Burke was so angry at Dodson. According to the IG, Burke and other Justice Department officials discovered that Dodson had proposed and participated in precisely the sort of questionable investigation—allowing known traffickers to walk away with guns and failing to trace the firearms—about which Dodson then testified to Congress. “Unbelievable,” Burke wrote in an e-mail to colleagues. “This guy called [Senator Charles] Grassley [R-Iowa] and CBS to unearth what he in fact was proposing to do himself. When you thought the hypocrisy of this whole matter had hit the limit already…”

The IG said he has asked the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility to determine whether Burke violated bar association rules in the states where the former prosecutor is a bar member. Burke’s attorney told the Washington Post that his client regrets his action but hadn’t intended to retaliate against the agent. Whatever Burke intended, his frustration didn’t for a minute justify the leak to Fox. Moreover, the whole sorry episode illustrates that the Obama administration would have been better off doing the right thing and coming clean as quickly and completely as possible about Fast and Furious—and about Wide Receiver.

These were terrible embarrassments for federal law enforcement, spanning the supervision of Republican and Democratic administrations. By attempting to limit its exposure to the fallout, the Obama administration only helped Republicans build their case that a nefarious coverup occurred. The lessons here are relevant to the controversies over the Benghazi attack, IRS-gate, and the Associated Press phone-records probe. One wonders whether the White House sees the pattern.

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