What was Fast And Furious? Who is to blame for the death of Brian Terry? Should Attorney General Eric Holder be impeached? Was Obama in on the conspiracy? You won’t find those answers here; that’s not the point of this blog. I’m here to discover and report on the arguments driving political opinion in the United States. The “Fast And Furious” scandal is becoming a divisive issue with many of us lining up on different sides to vent our anger at each other. Before we begin, it would probably be helpful if we were first aware of what the counterarguments are, and to question whether we really know what happened ourselves. There is a conspiracy theory out there that the operation was designed to increase gun violence as a pretext for increased gun control rules. Preaching this theory without hard evidence is reckless, dangerous, bad for the reasoned political debate essential to democracy, and sets us against each other needlessly. It has much the same effect as the conspiracy theory that elements of the US government were in on the 9/11 attacks as a pretext for war. There are also accusations out there that those trying to get to the bottom of the scandal are motivated solely to hurt President Obama politically, or even by racism. These accusations aren’t much help either, and only serve to divide us.
I don’t understand the issue myself. I have been frustrated by the media’s inability to get the basic facts straight. They don’t agree with each other. It isn’t just spin; somebody is lying. Before I made the effort to search for what all sides were claiming about the subject, my impression came from tiny tidbits I would hear from Fox News Radio and other places I have since forgotten. The story was basically that whistleblowers alerted the public (and congressional Republicans) to the existence of an ATF operation code named “Fast And Furious,” which purportedly was a “gunwalking” operation – that is, an operation that, rather than nab culprits involved in illegal or suspicious gun trafficking immediately, allowed the trafficking to take place while covertly tracking the merchandise to its eventual recipients. In this case, the ATF lost track of the guns, which were then used to kill at least one American and many, many Mexicans. It is because such operations are so risky, that they are generally frowned upon, and this was the primary driving force behind the Republicans’ investigation of the ATF and the Justice Department. In the course of the investigation to find out what Attorney General Eric Holder knew and when he knew it, it was claimed by Republicans that Eric Holder perjured himself repeatedly and delayed handing over important documents. Finally, Obama granted Mr. Holder executive privilege to withhold many of the documents from congress, which subsequently responded by voting to hold him in contempt.
After trying to learn all sides of the story, I discovered that at least some of the Republican’s claims of perjury may be based on incomplete data. Media Matters claims that a record of Eric Holder describing the operation from months before he claims to have known of it is actually a record of him describing a similar – but different – operation that existed before Fast And Furious was created. Media Matters also claims that Eric Holder has been 100% compliant in handing over all the relevant documents and that the ones he holds now are only those created after 4/February/2011 (after the operation was terminated) and cannot be released to the public because they detail ongoing investigations and would expose covert operatives. The suggestion has been thrown around on web forums and blogs that the Republicans are doing this digging only for theater, and Eric Holder himself has said something similar.
Of course, the Republicans have other reasons to accuse Holder of perjury than this one record. There are also court-sealed wiretap tapes not available to the public that Congressional Republicans claim prove their case. Democrats who have heard the tapes claim they do not. I suspect that Republicans have additional reasons for suspecting Eric Holder of perjury – some talk of seeing Mr. Holder squirm and obfuscate while on C-SPAN – but I haven’t had the time yet to find out what they are.
There are also those that claim that the Fast And Furious operation began under George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales and that Eric Holder put a stop to it when he discovered it was still taking place. Others (all across the internet, usually without citing sources) claim that a similar operation did start under Bush, but that it was stopped shortly thereafter because it was too risky; Fast And Furious was a new operation that began after Bush left office. Also, under Bush-Gonzales, tracking devices were used. Under Obama-Holder, they were not. Furthermore, the operation under Bush (Wide Receiver) was done with the cooperation and knowledge of the Mexican Government, unlike Fast And Furious, of which not even American ATF agents in Mexico were informed.
Katherine Eban claims on The Rachel Maddow Show that the operation Fast And Furious had nothing to do with “gunwalking,” but rather ATF agents were stymied in their efforts to prosecute gun traffickers because in Arizona, the gun laws are so lax that a case could not be made that these people had broken any laws. Of course, there are those that claim that parts of her story are contradicted the documents that have been released.
Taking things to a whole new level, Rachel Maddow claims that the only reason Republicans, Republican-leaning independents, and Fox News Viewers are even interested in Eric Holder is because of a conspiracy theory that Holder and Obama deliberately tried to increase gun violence to the point that they could gain public support for stricter gun laws, which of course fits into the supernarrative of the first step to tyranny being to disarm the populace. She goes on trying to make this conspiracy theory sound outlandish and its supporters sound stupid. I admit I don’t understand her reasoning here. Perhaps it will be the subject of a future post. I believe it irresponsible and dangerous to place faith in these theories without proof, but the theory is plausible. She crosses a line, in my opinion, when she tries to cast its adherents as stupid, and crosses another line when she claims that the only reason anyone is interested in the operation is the conspiracy theory. Does she not care about the possibility of mere gross incompetence? She even implies that the NRA approves of anything that would increase gun sales, and therefore could only be against gunwalking because they want to promote the conspiracy theory. Does she not understand that even if she is right in that the NRA cares only about gun sales, that they would be wary of anything that could be used as an excuse to overreact to reign in gun sales, diminishing them in the long run, conspiracy or not?
As for the conspiracy theory itself, there is now proof that ATF agents at least wanted to take advantage of the situation to push for stricter gun laws, but of course we still have no idea if they planned this ahead of time deliberately. We also have video of Eric Holder proposing a PR campaign to make guns uncool, in the same way that anti-tobacco ads made tobacco uncool, but this is a far cry from establishing that he has a complete anti-gun attitude, let alone establishing that he has a pro-gun-control attitude, let alone establishing that he actually acted on his attitudes. If this is all there is to go on, the case for this conspiracy is weak indeed – but it is plausible.
My Take: These conflicting stories have left me confused. Eric Holder may have been describing a different operation on that record, but it too involved “gunwalking,” so what’s the difference? The underlying issue of risky behavior and incompetence remains. If Fast And Furious was truly a new operation that began after Holder’s statements, as Media Matters claims, then that also means that it didn’t start under Bush, as Jack Lew claims. If Fast And Furious was not a gunwalking operation, but was simply unable to stop gunwalking, what sort of operation was it? What set it apart as a distinct operation with a distinct name? What was it? Are we even talking about the same thing? What were they doing? Also, the claim that Arizona’s lax gun laws are to blame feed into the conspiracy theorists’ claim that the government is going to try to make the case that we need more gun laws. Did anyone else notice this? If the conspiracy theory is true, why would Eric Holder deny knowing about the operation instead of simply blaming Arizona law from the beginning? On the other hand, if the conspiracy theory is false, but Arizona law is truly to blame, again why wouldn’t Holder have just said so from the beginning to cover himself? If it is true that the operation began under Bush, and Mr. Holder shut down the operation after he discovered it, again why would he deny such a thing? What we have here is not a simple left-versus-right issue; there are at least four different incompatible stories here. The line separating “us” and “them” is not at all clear.
There is probably a lot that I have missed that would give me a complete picture, but that is the whole point of The Understanding Project. We need to step away from Fox and MSNBC and Limbaugh and Olbermann long enough to fill each other in on the gaps in our knowledge. This is why divisive rhetoric is so dangerous: it keeps us in the dark. I don’t know what is going on, and neither do you. I encourage everyone on all sides of the issue to keep an open mind.
For those of you with both time and money, Katie Pavlich has written a book on the subject.
Hi, I'm Dan. I like chocolate, hiking, and politics.