The majority members of the U.S. House Oversight Committee have been granted their fondest wish -- their investigation into Operation Fast and Furious has caused the biggest proto-scandal in Washington, thanks to Attorney General Eric Holder's refusal to hand over documents and a House panel's vote last week to recommend the chamber cite him with contempt. No longer the private obsession of the right-wing media, Fast and Furious is on front pages and leading news broadcasts around the United States.
At issue now are two questions. First, what was the exact intent and oversight of the operation, run out of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)? The agency says it was meant to track illicit guns going over the border into Mexico, as part of an effort to build cases against major smugglers. Where cross-border gunrunning is concerned, ATF is usually confined to interdicting low-level purchasers, thanks to crippling investigative limits put on it by Congress.
Fast and Furious evolved out of a larger initiative, Project Gunrunner, an ambitious plan to extend the ATF's investigative reach into Mexico and put the agency on more equal footing with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which leads the war on drugs and has informants embedded deep in the cartels. The controversial tactic of allowing guns to "walk" in order to see where they go, the central issue in the investigation, began late in George W. Bush's administration and was carried over into President Barack Obama's term. Between 2009 and 2011, the ATF lost track of thousands of guns, according to certain agents. Some reached criminal gangs in Mexico (which was the point), including two that were found at the scene of a 2010 shootout where Brian Terry, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, was killed. Others have appeared at crime scenes around Mexico.
The second question, which has pushed the ATF into the background, is what the attorney general is refusing to show the House Oversight Committee. While Holder has turned over 7,600 documents, as he never fails to remind the committee, he won't release memos and emails that committee members believe detail Justice Department debates about how to handle the Fast and Furious fallout. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and other congressional Republicans make it no secret that they think Holder is running a coverup. They were more coy about suspicions that Obama is privy to it, but his decision last week to exert executive privilege on Holder's behalf has put an end to that.
Longtime critics of the ATF, from a libertarian banker I recently dined with to National Rifle Association director Wayne LaPierre, claim to believe the corruption runs much deeper. They say Fast and Furious proves the agency has been funneling guns to Mexican criminal organizations. Why the ATF would be doing this -- and making official policy of it -- is never part of the argument. Nonetheless, it's a short leap from that rock over the stream of reason and onto the one where Obama is actively working with Mexican cartels -- a belief that many Americans hold (just Google it).
While that sounds preposterous to most of us, including (one assumes) to most critics of the president, there is a place where the levelheaded believe what the anti-government fringe in the United States believes, and where Fast and Furious is a constant topic of conversation -- Mexico. Issa's investigation is a mainstay of news coverage there. Go on the comment boards of Mexican newspapers such as La Prensa or magazines such as Proceso, and you'll find that readers mention Fast and Furious, in conspiratorial tones, at every chance.
This spring, I was in Culiacán, home to the Sinaloa cartel and some of the worst recent violence in Mexico. Beginning in 2007, just as Project Gunrunner was getting started, the cartel's leader, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, was challenged for supremacy by a gang from the east, Los Zetas, and by the Beltrán-Leyvas, a quartet of murderous brothers who had once worked for Chapo. Gun battles broke out in the plazas and streets of Culiacán on a daily basis. Heads rolled, literally, a lot of them.