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Darrell Issa
Darrell Issa (Western Journalism Center)
A day before the House of Representatives votes on a contempt resolution against Attorney General Eric Holder over the release of documents in the "Fast and Furious" operation, Katherine Eban at Fortune has called into question some of the most basic beliefs about what happened in this gun sales operation. Whether you've followed the case closely or never paid attention until now, it's worth a read.

"Fast and Furious" grew out of frustration at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Agents had a devil of a time getting prosecutions against straw purchasers who bought large numbers of guns they then passed along to others. The program was initiated in Arizona, which is a freaking free-for-all for gun buyers. Any 18-year-old without a criminal record can buy as many firearms in Arizona as he wants and the same afternoon transfer them to whomever. That whomever may very well be the person who put up the money for the purchase. After the transfer, the guns can wind up anywhere, but thousands of guns go to Mexico. Many of those wind up in the hands of gangsters in the drug cartels whose war among themselves and on the Mexican people have taken an estimated 50,000 lives in six years.

Straw-purchase cases are difficult to prosecute anywhere, but Eban writes that it was made more difficult by the reluctance of Arizona-based U.S. prosecutors to take on any case that wasn't ironclad. And their definition of that was extreme:

After examining one suspect's garbage, agents learned he was on food stamps yet had plunked down more than $300,000 for 476 firearms in six months. [Dave Voth, supervisor of Fast and Furious] asked if the ATF could arrest him for fraudulently accepting public assistance when he was spending such huge sums. Prosecutor [Emory] Hurley said no. In another instance, a young jobless suspect paid more than $10,000 for a .50-caliber tripod-mounted sniper rifle. According to Voth, Hurley told the agents they lacked proof that he hadn't bought the gun for himself. [...]

Even if a suspect bought 10 guns that were recovered days later at a Mexican crime scene, this didn't mean the initial purchase had been illegal. To these prosecutors, the pattern proved little. Instead, agents needed to link specific evidence of intent to commit a crime to each gun they wanted to seize.

And if getting single-defendant prosecutions in cases like that was hard, obtaining prosecutions of multiple defendants, including bigwigs, in straw-purchasing and trafficking schemes was nigh on impossible. Southwest border units, including Group VII in Phoenix, became ATF's solution for putting together big cases and making them stick. Fast and Furious was an attempt to get the ironclad evidence needed. The idea was to manually dig through the sales reports of holders of Federal Firearms Licenses, select some likely straw purchasers, track the weapons they bought and then bring strong cases against them and their recruiters.

(Continue reading below the fold)

But the program had multiple strikes against it from the get-go: a seven-member team assembled from different parts of the country; inadequate resources for the job at hand; personality clashes; some agents who thumbed their noses at the operational rules and at the team leader; management weakness; the aforementioned attitudes of the U.S. attorneys and the volume of guns.

Soon after Brian Terry, the ATF U.S. Border Control agent , was murdered and guns connected to Fast and Furious were found at the scene of the crime, an agent in Group VII went public with attacks on Voth and the program, sparking right-wing bloggers, and then members of Congress, to get involved. Hence, a 17-month investigative battle between the Department of Justice and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chaired by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who made his disdain for the Obama administration evident long before he took on that post.

Eban writes:

As political pressure has mounted, ATF and Justice Department officials have reversed themselves. After initially supporting Group VII agents and denying the allegations, they have since agreed that the ATF purposefully chose not to interdict guns it lawfully could have seized. Holder testified in December that "the use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable, and it must never happen again."

There's the rub.

Quite simply, there's a fundamental misconception at the heart of the Fast and Furious scandal. Nobody disputes that suspected straw purchasers under surveillance by the ATF repeatedly bought guns that eventually fell into criminal hands. Issa and others charge that the ATF intentionally allowed guns to walk as an operational tactic. But five law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious tell Fortune that the ATF had no such tactic. They insist they never purposefully allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Just the opposite: They say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.

Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies. Fortune reviewed more than 2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviewed 39 people, including seven law-enforcement agents with direct knowledge of the case. [...]

"Republican senators are whipping up the country into a psychotic frenzy with these reports that are patently false," says Linda Wallace, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit who was assigned to the Fast and Furious team (and recently retired from the IRS). A self-described gun-rights supporter, Wallace has not been criticized by Issa's committee.

With the contempt resolution gathering several likely Democratic votes in its favor, the House will almost certainly approve it. Chances of its being prosecuted before it expires at the end of the congressional session are nil. Republicans know that. It's all about making noise against Obama.

Meanwhile, as Eban writes, new information keeps emerging about Fast and Furious.

Among the discoveries: 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. That came as news to the ATF agents in Group VII.
A real investigation is what's needed, not one run for partisan purposes. And it needs to go waaaaay beyond Fast and Furious.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Wed Jun 27, 2012 at 10:13 AM PDT.

Also republished by Baja Arizona Kossacks and Daily Kos.

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