The US House of Representatives voted on June 28 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena for documents relating to Operation Fast and Furious, a bungled program in which the Arizona office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) inadvertently let about 2,000 firearms pass into Mexico during 2009 and 2010. The ATF is an agency of the Justice Department, which the attorney general heads.
This was the first time in US history that Congress cited a sitting member of the president’s cabinet for contempt, but it would have little practical effect unless the Justice Department chose to enforce the contempt citation. Holder and the department insist they are withholding the documents legally, since US president Barack Obama has invoked executive privilege in the case.
The 255-67 vote on the contempt motion in the House, which is controlled by the Republicans, was clearly intended to hurt President Obama, a Democrat, as he runs for reelection on Nov. 6. Only 17 Democrats supported for the motion, and about 100 walked out of the chamber to protest the vote. What is “curious” about the move, as the correspondent for the Mexican daily La Jornada notes, is that the gun lobby was energetically promoting it; the politically powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) warned the 435 members of the House that voting to support Holder might cause them problems when they stand for reelection in November.
The scandal would seem to focus attention on lax gun control laws in the US which allow “straw buyers” to purchase weapons in states like Arizona and then smuggle them to drug cartels in Mexico, but the Republicans and the gun lobby have come up with a conspiracy theory that would put the onus on supporters of gun control. Republican politicians claim the Obama administration purposely let the guns go to the drug cartels so that the resulting bloodbath in Mexico could be used to justify strict federal gun control legislation. As many as 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since the end of 2006. (LJ, June 29)
A June 27 investigative piece by Fortune magazine reporter Katherine Eban undercuts the conspiracy theory. Based on interviews she held with ATF agents and documents she obatined, Eban concluded that ATF officials in Arizona wanted to arrest the straw buyers and confiscate the weapons but were prevented from doing this by the local US Attorney’s office. The Arizona ATF group only let illegally purchased guns “walk” on one occasion, in June 2010, when agent John Dodson provided six AK Draco pistols to suspected gun trafficker Isaiah Fernandez. Seven months later, in February 2011, agent Dodson—who was feuding with his boss, David J. Voth—suddenly started acting as a whistleblower. Dodson appeared on CBS News claiming the ATF had purposely “walked” all the guns and that he had opposed the practice.
Eban wrote that the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House over the last year has seriously damaged ATF efforts to stop the flow of guns from Arizona to Mexico; between 2010 and 2011, gun seizures by the ATF in Phoenix dropped by 90%. She noted that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who has led the investigation, “has a personal history on this issue: In 1972, at age 19, he was arrested for having a concealed, loaded .25-caliber automatic in his car.”
But while Eban’s reporting seems to clear the ATF of some of the responsibility, it implicates other operatives of the Justice Department: the US attorneys in Arizona who refused to prosecute straw buyers. More revelations may come in a few months when the Justice Department’s inspector general produces a report on the case. “Among the discoveries,” Eban wrote, is the fact that “Fast and Furious’ top suspects—Sinaloa Cartel operatives and Mexican nationals who were providing the money, ordering the guns, and directing the recruitment of the straw purchasers—turned out to be FBI informants who were receiving money from the bureau.” Like the ATF, the FBI is an agency of the Justice Department. (Fortune, June 27, via CNN Money)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 1.