ver the weekend, Attorney General Eric Holder offered an odd view of why his critics have demanded transparency and disclosure from the Department of Justice over Operation Fast and Furious. The ATF sent hundreds, if not thousands, of weapons across the U.S.-Mexico border in 2009 and 2010, ostensibly to track them as they passed from straw buyers in the U.S. to drug cartels in Mexico. However, the ATF didn't actually track the weapons, which have now begun appearing in crime scenes north of the border. The weapons have been used in hundreds of murders in Mexico and at least one in the U.S., in which Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed just over a year ago.
When a botched American law enforcement operation ends up contributing to the murder of more than 300 people, one might think that this would be enough to explain strong criticism of the ATF, its parent agency the Department of Justice, and the leadership in both. But the attorney general rejects this view. Instead, Holder told The New York Times' Charlie Savage that the intense scrutiny of himself and Barack Obama relating to Fast and Furious came from a few "extreme" bloggers and conservative media figures whose criticisms were "both due to the nature of our relationship and, you know, the fact that we're both African-American." The rest of the critics, Holder assured Savage, were motivated by ideological reasons rather than racial bigotry.
So the deaths of hundreds of people with guns supplied by the ATF — including the murder of a Border Patrol agent — would go unnoticed and unremarked if the attorney general and president had been caucasian centrists? Something tells me that Holder's next job won't be as a political analyst.
If all Holder has in defense of his performance and that of his Department of Justice is playing the race card in an attempt to bully his critics into silence, then he truly has no defense at all.
Holder told the Times that he had no idea that the DOJ or the ATF were "walking" guns across the border, an assertion that he has also made to Congress. Savage wrote that "no documents or testimony have shown otherwise," but that's not quite true. In documents demanded by Congress and finally provided after a long battle with Holder and DOJ, Holder's office had been informed on several occasions about Operation Fast and Furious and its gunwalking. One such memo had Holder's name and those of other high-ranking Justice officials on it, as the Daily Caller reported after Holder's interview was published:
This investigation — initiated in September 2009 in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Phoenix Police Department — involves a Phoenix-based firearms trafficking ring headed by Manuel Celis-Acosta. Celis-Acosta and straw purchasers are responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug-trafficking cartels. They also have direct ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, which is suspected of providing $1 million for the purchase of firearms in the greater Phoenix area.
Another such email between two officials at Justice shows that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer explicitly knew that guns were being "walked" across the border by the ATF. The email warned that Breuer would have difficulty explaining away the problem "given the number of guns that have walked." Yet Holder's Justice Department initially told Congress in a letter in February of this year that agents had always tried to interdict guns traversing the border, which was a patently false assertion that Justice had to withdraw.
Holder himself has created even more obfuscation. After criticism of Holder and Fast and Furious began making headlines, Democrats began pointing to an earlier, Bush-era effort called Operation Wide Receiver, which also tracked rogue guns across the southern border. Perhaps if the two operations were identical, Holder's criticism would have some potential merit, but Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) forced Holder to admit in Senate testimony that the two operations had two significant differences. First, Wide Receiver actually did track a very limited number of weapons, unlike Fast and Furious, which lost them all. More importantly, the Bush administration conducted Wide Receiver in conjunction with the Mexican government. The DOJ and the ATF never notified Mexico of the gunwalking that took place under Holder.
How about the purported ideological motive for the criticism of the operation? Holder claims that the attacks are a form of payback for the Democratic probe of George W. Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, but there is a clearer ideological connection that has surfaced — only it points to the ideological motive behind Fast and Furious itself. CBS News found an ATF memo that discussed using "anecdotal cases" from Fast and Furious to support efforts to pass new gun-control legislation.
On top of this, the real significant source of cartel weapons turns out not to be straw buyers in U.S. gun shops anyway. CBS' Sharyl Atkisson reported that the Obama administration, through the State Department, has greatly increased direct sales of military-grade long guns from U.S. manufacturers to the Mexican military and police, going from just under 2,500 weapons in 2006 to 18,709 in 2009. The State Department could not account for 26 percent of weapons it tried to track from its direct-sale program with Mexico, which meant in 2009 alone more than 4,900 guns may have disappeared — perhaps carried with deserters from the army and police when they joined the cartels.
To recap, we have an agency under Holder's supervision that ran perhaps thousands of guns across the border without any attempt to keep track of them, to supposedly find straw buyers and their connection to the cartels. The ATF then tried to use the purchases they facilitated as evidence that the ATF needed more restrictive laws to impose on gun dealers. These weapons were used in hundreds of murders. When Congress challenged Holder on the operation, his staff at the Department of Justice offered a false statement that the ATF always attempted to interdict weapons before crossing the border, which they had to withdraw when documents began appearing that clearly contradicted it. Even to this day, Holder has told Congress that he has communications regarding Fast and Furious that he will not release to investigators in the House who have demanded them.
If all Holder has in defense of his performance and that of his Department of Justice is playing the race card in an attempt to bully his critics into silence, then he truly has no defense at all. With the families of 300 murder victims mourning deaths delivered by the ATF's weaponry, dismissing criticism of Holder's performance as attorney general as bigotry is not just despicable, it should be a disqualification for the office he holds.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why is American internet so slow?
- 7 ways to be the most interesting person in any room
- Colorado’s new ‘drive high, get a DUI’ commercials are actually pretty clever
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- Ukraine's fraught relationship with Russia: A brief history
- 10 things you need to know today: March 9, 2014
- Who are the real gay marriage bigots?
- Sorry Belle Knox, porn still oppresses women
- This energy source could solve all of our problems — so why is no one talking about it?
Subscribe to the Week