Watergate clichés though they are, two questions beg to be asked about the exploding Fast and Furious scandal at the U.S. Department of Justice: What did Attorney General Eric Holder know and when did he know it concerning the underlying concept, operational protocols and legal status of the Operation Fast and Furious program in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms?
Those questions gained special relevance Wednesday when four ATF agents testified before Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and squarely contradicted a Feb. 4 claim by a department spokesman that the DOJ did not approve of the program that sanctioned the illegal sale here in America by legitimate gun dealers of assault weapons to representatives of Mexican drug cartels. The idea behind the program was that the hundreds of firearms thus sold would then be traced from specific crimes, thus enabling prosecutions of the individuals involved.
The agents testified that Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, a Phoenix-based appointee of President Barack Obama, “orchestrated” Operation Fast and Furious. ATF Phoenix field office supervisor Peter Forcelli, for example, told the committee: “I have read documents that indicate that his boss, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, also agreed with the direction of the case.” That direction was established sometime after Obama was inaugurated in 2009 when Phoenix ATF agents, breaking with long-established agency practice, were ordered to monitor, but not stop, gun sales to suspected gun traffickers. The agents testified that Phoenix ATF supervisor David Voth “was jovial, if not, not giddy, but just delighted” when Fast and Furious guns were subsequently recovered at multiple Mexican drug busts. And emails released Thursday by Issa revealed that acting Director Kenneth Melson even arranged to watch live feeds from ATF cameras in gun stores being used by the program while sitting at his desk.
But delight turned to devastation on Dec. 14, 2010, when two Fast and Furious rifles were found at the scene of Border Agent Brian Terry’s slaying approximately 18 miles inside the U.S. border in the Arizona desert. The program ended the next day. Special Agent Larry Alt told the committee that Terry’s death was the entirely foreseeable result of Operation Fast and Furious: “You can’t allow thousands of guns to go south of the border without an expectation that they are going to be recovered eventually in crimes and people are going to die.”
There had also been panic among ATF officials when news first broke that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., had been shot because they feared the weapon used might be one of those sold via Operation Fast and Furious.
Documents released by the Issa panel make it clear that Operation Fast and Furious was well-known and enthusiastically supported at the highest levels of ATF. That means the program had to have been supported elsewhere within the Department of Justice. Thus, it is inconceivable that Holder did not know about Operation Fast and Furious. But even if he didn’t know, he clearly should have. Either way, Wednesday’s hearing provided the latest evidence that it’s past time for Holder to go.