I was a panelist last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Chicago on Fast and Furious. The panel answered the question raised in an article by my co-panelist, David Kopel: “Why you should be furious about Fast and Furious.”
What none of us could answer for certain, though, is why Fast and Furious ever happened in the first place.
Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute and director of its Second Amendment Project. We were joined by Rick Esenberg, an adjunct professor at Marquette Law School; the founder, president, and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty; and a Heartland policy advisor. The moderator was David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association and former 17-year chairman of the American Conservative Union.
As we discussed on the panel, Fast and Furious is often referred to as a “botched” gun operation. But, Fast and Furious wasn’t botched at all. It operated exactly as planned.
It was run by the U.S. Department of Justice. Gun shops in Arizona were encouraged to sell weapons to “straw purchasers” – even purchasers to whom the gun shops ordinarily would not have sold guns because they knew the buyers were fronting for Mexican drug lords. After the sales, the serial numbers of these guns were recorded, and the guns then allowed to “walk” into the hands of Mexican drug kingpins without any surveillance. Guns found at Mexican crime scenes were then linked to U.S. sales. Several Fast and Furious guns were found at the site where border patrol agent Brian Terry was slain, provoking a scandal ending Fast and Furious.
According to the Washington Times:
[Fast and Furious] was part of a plan, a risky strategy to allow weapons to be placed in what agents call the “Iron River” of guns flowing south into Mexico. The goal, of course, was to feed the gun-trafficking network and to identify the big fish, the drug cartel bosses in Mexico who were paying for the weapons.
But there was a problem:
There was to be no interdiction of the purchased guns before they crossed the border, as frustrated ATF field agents were ordered to “stand down.” There was no interest in prosecuting the straw buyers on charges of “lying and buying.” Those who put the Fast and Furious operation together had bigger targets in mind.”
Under the design of Fast and Furious, these “bigger targets” – the Mexican drug lords wielding the ill-gotten weapons – were long gone from the crime scenes in Mexico by the time the guns were recovered. And anyway, the AFT already knows who the drug lords are, just as it knows who the straw purchasers are. So far, 20 straw purchasers have been indicted. But not a single drug lord has been captured, much less charged. That’s because what the ATF needed was evidence linking specific drug lords to specific crimes. Fast and Furious did nothing to obtain such evidence – in fact, it affirmatively involved not obtaining such evidence. So what was its purpose? We don’t know.
Said U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):
Who thought it was a good idea? Why did this happen? The president said he didn’t authorize it and that the attorney general (said he) didn’t authorize it. They have both admitted that a “serious mistake” may have been made. There are a lot of questions and a lot of investigating to do. But one thing has become clear already — this was no mistake.”
The Bush administration’s 2006 Operation Wide Receiver had similarities to Fast and Furious and is often cited to justify the Obama administration’s version. But there is a critical difference between the two. In Wide Receiver, ATF conducted surveillance on illegal gun purchases in the U.S. and continued that surveillance across the border into Mexico. But the cross-border surveillance proved too difficult and was abandoned in 2007. Fast and Furious included no surveillance whatsoever after the illegal purchase in the U.S.
As Esenberg wrote Monday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Unlike the previous program, there appears to have been no plan – or way – to follow them once they crossed the border. The guns would be “found” only when they turned up at a crime scene. Mexican authorities did not know what was going on. US agents based in Mexico to assist that country’s government did not know what was going on.”
U.S. Rep. Darrel Issa (R-California) has been trying to uncover the rationale for Fast and Furious by subpoenaing documents from Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Department of Justice regarding top officials’ knowledge of operational details. Holder has been stonewalling, so a vote has been scheduled in the House Oversight Committee on whether Holder should be held in contempt of Congress on June 20.
The documents Issa is demanding are important, but getting them has taken months – months in which, unfortunately, the horrifying details of Fast and Furious have not gleaned much media attention.
Known facts demonstrate, beyond any doubt, that the United States government deliberately put guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartel criminals. Even ATF agents were horrified and blew the whistle on their superiors:
During a rancorous five-hour hearing, ATF agents assigned in Mexico said they discovered the Fast and Furious investigation only after documenting that an alarming rate of guns found at violent crime sites in Mexico were being traced to Arizona gun dealers.
Mr. Gil [of ATF] said he found it “inconceivable” that any competent ATF agent would allow “firearms to disappear at all,” especially on an international border. As a result, he said, Mexico will continue to suffer the consequences of drug-related firearms violence.
Agent Carlos Canino, ATF’s acting attache to Mexico, angrily told the committee that “walking guns” was not a recognized investigative technique, adding that hundreds of weapons ultimately went to ruthless criminals in Mexico.
“It infuriates me that people, including my law enforcement, diplomatic and military colleagues, may be killed or injured with these weapons,” he said, adding that “never in my wildest dreams” would he have thought that ATF agents would allow guns to be walked to Mexican criminals.
It would be wrong to claim that Attorney General Holder authorized the program or knew of what it entailed. That remains to be seen. It would be wrong to say that the program was designed to create crimes that could be used to justify more stringent regulation. I can’t believe that anyone would be that monstrous.
I’m not so sure.