The program was halted only after the murder of a U.S. Border Guard by Mexicans using â€œFast and Furiousâ€ firearms, when a courageous ATF agent blew the whistle and told members of Congress, beginning with Iowaâ€™s Sen. Chuck Grassley, what was going on.
Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., have led the probe into Operation Fast and Furious for almost a year. Their efforts to ferret out the facts have been greeted by stonewalling from the DOJ, evasive answers and outright lies.
The best they can get out of Holder is an admission that Fast and Furious was a â€œflawedâ€ operation that should never have happened. Who ordered it? Nobody is quite sure. When did Holder first know about it? Depends on what day you ask.
â€œWe donâ€™t know who ordered it and Iâ€™d be surprised if evidence were to surfaceâ€¦ that identified who was responsible,â€ Holder told Congress. He tried to cast the affair as a misguided local operation by the Arizona office of the Bureau of ATF.
Many congressmen find that impossible to believe since â€œFast and Furiousâ€ entailed joint operations between ATF,the FBI and many other agencies who would have only acted on the orders of recognized higher ups.
â€œMassive gun-smuggling by the U.S. government into a foreign country does not happen without the explicit knowledge and approval of leading administration officials. Itâ€™s too big, too risky and too costly,â€ writes the Washington Times in a scathing op-ed that slams Eric Holder for deceiving the American people.
Holderâ€™s efforts to distance himself and the DOJ from the fiasco have backfired as two congressional probes chip away at what many believe is a cover up that reaches the highest levels of the Obama administration.
Testifying to the growing sense of outrage, 55 congressmen are demanding Attorney General Eric Holderâ€™s resignation. And a House of Representatives resolution of â€œno confidenceâ€ in Holderâ€™s leadership quickly picked up 75 co-sponsors last week.
REPORTER WHO REFUSED TO MARCH IN LOCKSTEP
The furor has been slow in heating up. A mainstream media protective of its Democratic heroes has successfully played down the affair, keeping the public blindsided for close to a year.
That has now begun to change. Congressional hearings have thrust into public view a pattern of contradictory and misleading testimony, dodging questions and revolving stories on the part of top DOJ officials, including the Attorney General and senior deputies.
While the media continues its foot-dragging on the story, a few notable exceptions have pushed the story into the headlines. Foremost is CBS News, whose investigative reporter Sheryl Atkinson refused to march in lockstep with the policy of hush-up.
Atkinson was one of the first to publicly point out that Holderâ€™s testimony before Congress conflicted with internal Justice Department memos that had come to light. CBS News published her findings, infuriating the DOJ.
In response to Atkinsonâ€™s persistent queries to the DOJ about Holderâ€™s exact words– â€œCould you write them down for me so I know itâ€™s 100 per cent accurate?â€ a DOJ staffer screamed at her that she was being unreasonable. â€œThe New York Times is reasonable, Washington Post is reasonable. CBS News is not!â€ the staffer raged, according to Atkinsonâ€™s interview with Fox News.
Fox News and websites including Daily Caller and a variety of news and political blogs began intensively tracking other contradictions and inconsistencies by the DOJ, and shining a light on indications of a cover up.
A recent scathing op-ed in the Washington Times pinned responsibility on Holder and his chief deputies for the lethal gun-walking program that was responsible for so much death and violence. The operation was so out-of-control, it even had ATF agents protesting its recklessness and potential for disaster to the agencyâ€™s chiefs.
Some of these individuals became whistle-blowers, and risked their careers to reveal to higher upsâ€”and when that failed, to members of Congressâ€”what they felt was criminal negligence on the part of the ATF. This is how the truth about Fast and Furious first began to emerge.
U.S. BORDER AGENT VICTIM OF HIS OWN GOVERNMENT
â€œA year ago this week, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered,â€ the Washington Times wrote. â€œHe died protecting his country from brutal Mexican gangsters. We now know the horrifying truth: Terry was killed by weapons that were part of an illegal Obama administration operation to smuggle arms to the dangerous drug cartels.â€
â€œTerry was a victim of his own government,â€ the article continued. â€œThis is not only a major scandal; it is a high crime that potentially reaches all the way to the White House, implicating senior officials. It is President Obamaâ€™s Watergateâ€ [a reference to the political dirty tricks of the Nixon Administration that eventually forced Richard Nixon out of office.]
The governmentâ€™s rationale for Fast and Furious has been scornfully dismissed by critics.
â€œATF claims it was seeking to track the weapons as part of a larger crackdown on the growing violence in the Southwest. But there was never any serious attempt to trace the guns. Instead, ATF effectively has armed murderous gangs,â€ the Washington Times op-ed noted, adding that the Mexican government was outrageously kept out of the loop, and left to cope with the botched operation.
GUN-WALKING DENIALS SHOWS TO BE FALSE
Holder and his chief deputies, including Criminal Justice head Lanny Breuer, have denied having any knowledge of the gun-walking operation.
But emails subpoenaed by Senators Grassley and Issa have lifted the veil on secret discussions among top DOJ personnel that show that higher ups were well aware of â€œgun-walkingâ€ along the Mexican border long before they say they were.
Other emails have incriminated Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the justice departmentâ€™s criminal division. Breuerâ€™s office played a prominent role in crafting a February letter to Congress that denied ATF had ever walked guns into Mexico.
Yet, under pressure from congressional investigators, the department later admitted that Mr. Breuer knew about ATF gun-smuggling as far back as April 2010.
â€œImagine my surprise when I discovered from documents that Mr. Breuer was far more informed during the drafting of that letter than he admitted before the judiciary committee,â€ Grassley fumed last week on the Senate floor.
Grassley says Breuer both lied in officially denying in a letter what he knew to be true about federal gun-running, and then lied about his involvement, in the letter.
â€œMr. Breuerâ€™s failure to be candid and forthcoming before this body irreparably harms his credibility,â€ Grassley added in the speech, during which he called for Breuerâ€™s resignation.
The Washington Times op-ed lashed out at Holder for withholding vital information about the affair from Congress.
â€œMr. Holder is fighting to prevent important internal Justice documents from falling into the hands of congressional investigators,â€ the author wrote.
â€œHe insists he was unaware of what took place until after media reports of the scandal appeared in early 2011. This is false. Such a vast operation only could have occurred with the full knowledge and consent of senior administration officials.â€
â€œMassive gun-running and smuggling is not carried out by low-level ATF bureaucrats unless there is authorization from the top,â€ the article continued. â€œThere is a systematic cover-up.â€
Holder insists the Justice Department has been forthcoming and points to thousands of documents and emails turned over to Congress. The most striking thing about all this material is what wasnâ€™t included: Not a single email generated by Holder, or sent to him.
When asked by Senator Issa to explain this extraordinary omission, Holder said he was waiting for an internal DOJ investigation to be completed and â€œdidnâ€™t want to interfere.â€
WHATâ€™S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LYING AND MISLEADING?
During one hearing, Holder admitted that an ATF letter to Congress that denied the agency had ever allowed â€œgun-walkingâ€ was false. The denial, he argued to Congress, was not a lie. It was â€œinaccurate.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s the difference between lying and misleading Congress in this context?â€ Rep. Sensenbrenner asked.
Thrown off balance, Holder tried to dissect the word â€˜lie,â€ coming up with â€œIf you really want to have this conversationâ€¦.lying is a state of mind.â€ Itâ€™s when the person â€œhas an intent to mislead.â€
The ripple of derisive laughter that greeted this wordplay left no doubt about whether, to those in the room, Holderâ€™s testimony qualified for his definition of lying.
Under withering questioning by congressmen, the attorney general has admitted that the guns will likely â€œcause many more killingsâ€ for years to come. His passive acceptance of such tragedies has further enraged critics.
PAYBACK FOR THOSE WHO KNOW HOW TO KEEP QUIET
A Forbes.com article has noted that friends of Holder who were involved in â€œFast and Furiousâ€ as well as potential witnesses, are being â€œrewardedâ€ for keeping quiet.
The article cites as an example the career development of former acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson. Internal documents show Mr. Melson directly oversaw Fast and Furious, including monitoring numerous straw purchases of AK-47s.
He has admitted to congressional investigators that he, along with high-ranking ATF leaders, reassigned every â€œmanager involved in Fast and Furiousâ€ after the scandal surfaced on Capitol Hill and in the press.
Melson said he was ordered by senior Justice officials to be silent regarding the reassignments. Hence, ATF managers who possess intimate and damaging information â€“ especially on the role of the Justice Department â€“ essentially have been promoted. Below are a few examples, according to the Forbes.com article:
Acting ATF Chief Melson became an adviser in the Office of Legal Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Acting Deputy Director Billy Hoover is now the special agent in charge of the D.C. office.
Deputy Director for Field Operations William McMahonâ€”heâ€™d received detailed briefings Fast and Furiousâ€”is now at the ATFâ€™s Office of Internal Affairs.
Former Special Agent in Charge of Phoenix William Newellâ€”he oversaw Fast and Furious and lied by saying guns hadnâ€™t been allowed to go south of the borderâ€”is now at the Office of Management in Washington, D.C.
ATF Group Supervisor David Vothâ€”he managed Fast and Furious out of the Phoenix officeâ€”is now in a management position in Washington, D.C.
Agent Hope McCallisterâ€”she had management duties on the team that ran Fast and Furiousâ€”was given a â€œLifesaving Awardâ€ after it came to light sheâ€™d ordered agents to stop tailing suspects who the ATF had allowed to buy guns.
Meanwhile, the whistleblowers who blew the cover off Fast and Furious are paying the price.
Agent John Dodson, after nearly a year of harassment, including being given menial assignments and being barred from areas of the ATF building in Phoenix, is in the process of trying to sell his home in Arizona so he can transfer to South Carolina.
Agent Larry Alt transferred to Florida. He still has unresolved legal claims against the ATF for their alleged retaliation against him.
Agent Pete Forcelli was demoted to a desk job after he testified before Congress. He has requested an internal investigation to address retaliation targeting him.
The lesson for potential future whistleblowers is clear. Like those who had been ordered to let guns â€œwalkâ€ in Operation Fast and Furiousâ€”and federal employees who are caught up in other misguided or corrupt programsâ€”the choice is to either keep quiet, or come forward and be crushed by the bureaucracy while attempting to stand up for whatâ€™s right.
DOJ SOUGHT TO TAMPER WITH FOIA
Senator Grassley has highlighted a related issue that hasnâ€™t made the headlines. This issue puts the politics behind the cover up of Fast and Furious in perspective.
In November, internal documents showed that the DOJ was considering changing existing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations. This is a process that allows citizens to seek and obtain unclassified documents. The changed law would allow federal agencies to answer a FOIA request by saying â€œno records exist,â€ even if the records do, in fact, exist.
That would put government documents out of reach of American citizens whenever a federal agency decides, for whatever reasons, that the information being sought should remain classified
Under the changed law, when someone makes a request for government documents, the agency would be able to dodge that request with false denials.
That would undermine the very purpose of the Freedom Of Information Act: to keep government responsible to the people by guaranteeing the rights of Americans to be informed about government actions and policies affecting them.
â€œThey were giving themselves a license to legally lie,â€ Senator Grassley told reporters. â€œAnd this was supposed to be the most transparent administration weâ€™ve ever seen,â€ he added ironically.
The senator added that after his staff made a commotion about the DOJ giving themselves a â€œlicense to legally lie,â€ the DOJ was â€œso embarrassed they withdrew the proposal right away.â€