The first acting job I had after college was with a fledgling dinner theater in Virginia, about thirty miles south of Washington, DC. Dinner theaters don’t pay well. Fledgling dinner theaters are painfully unclear as to the meaning of the words “payment” or “salary.” I barely earned enough to cover the gas expenses for my drive back and forth to the theater, and this was in the long ago halcyon days when gasoline cost twenty-nine cents a gallon. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time like that in America.) Because I had a strange fetish about eating from time to time, I had to work other jobs during the day. I drove a taxi. I worked as a gardener. My gardening skills were non-existent, so the only people dumb enough or kind enough to hire me were friends of my family. One of these was a retired associate deputy director of the CIA. He had retired because of a massive heart attack and at that time was still recuperating. On pleasant days he would sit in the garden and talk to me while I worked. He claimed he enjoyed talking to me, but I suspect he really wanted to ensure I didn’t mistake flowers for weeds and vice versa. I usually did.
It just so happened that the day the Watergate scandal hit the news I was working at his house. I was cutting the blossoms off his camellias and he was sitting outside in his usual chair with a newspaper in his lap. I was too poor to afford a newspaper and too self-absorbed to care much, but I had seen the headlines and at one point I said, “Can you believe Nixon was dumb enough to have guys break into the DNC (Democratic National Committee) headquarters?”
“No,” he said. “I can’t.”
I stopped uprooting his perennials and looked at him. If anyone had his finger on the pulse of Washington’s inner circles and echelons of power, it was this man. “What do you mean?”
“Think about it.” He tapped the paper with the back of his hand. “It’s too obvious.”
“What are you saying?”
He smiled patiently, a remedial teacher with an exceptionally dull student. “If you were the head of the DNC, responsible for getting your candidate into the White House, what would you do? If you had an opportunity to make yourself look like the victim, and the Republican incumbent look like a villain, what would you do? Why not stage an exceptionally clumsy and amateurish break-in, get caught, and make it all look like a Republican plot to grab power?”
As it turned out, he was wrong. He grotesquely overestimated the intelligence of both the Democrats and Richard Nixon, but it was an eye-opening moment for an exceptionally naïve young fool, a revelation into the deviousness and dirt and—oh, just add whatever adjectives you want—of politics.
I was thinking about all this as I watched the congressional vote today on Eric Holder and the coverage of the “Fast and Furious” scandal.
Have you been following the Fast and Furious debacle? If you haven’t—and if you live in a country other than America there’s no reason why you would—let me try to give you a brief explanation and timeline.
First the explanation: Fast and Furious was an operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF, a federal law enforcement agency within and under the aegis of the US Department of Justice) intended to allow illegally purchased firearms to be smuggled into Mexico, ostensibly to lead law enforcement to the arms-trafficking networks (or at least to high-level buyers) for the drug cartels who were ultimately responsible for purchasing the weapons. This was meant to be a sting operation known as “walking.” It was modeled on a similar, earlier and unsuccessful, operation conducted by the ATF during 2006 and 2007. The earlier operation was known as “Wide Receiver” and it involved several hundred guns (between four and five hundred). A desultory and unsuccessful attempt was made then to track the straw buyers by placing tracking devices on their vehicles. Since American law enforcement has no jurisdiction in Mexico, Mexican law enforcement was—or may have been; there is reason to doubt the ATF’s own assertions on this—informed of operation Wide Receiver and was supposed to be responsible for following the firearms from the border to the drug cartels. The whole operation failed, for a variety of reasons, and was shut down. It has been claimed that the Bush administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) was in charge of Wide Receiver, just as the Obama administration’s DOJ was in charge of Fast and Furious, but an email from the senior counsel in charge of field operations in 2007 indicates that the DOJ had never approved the operation, and in fact was responsible for terminating it. Wide Receiver was, apparently, a rogue ATF operation.
In 2009, with an unsuccessful operation as their paradigm, the ATF decided to run another, larger sting operation called “Fast and Furious.” There were several key differences: 1) Fast and Furious involved thousands of firearms, not hundreds; 2) neither the Mexican government nor any branch of their law enforcement was ever informed of the operation; 3) no attempt (such as tracking devices on guns or cars) was made to follow the weapons; 4) when ATF field agents attempted to track the straw purchasers, to arrest them and the next level of cartel buyers up the food chain, they were ordered by their superiors to “stand down” (i.e. do nothing and let the guns walk); 5) field agents within the ATF who voiced objections to the obvious ineffectiveness and potential danger of the operation were rebuked by their superiors; 6) there was at least some DOJ involvement, the extent of which has yet to be determined.
Now the timeline:
October 2009: A conference call was held between the DOJ, ATF, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and federal prosecutors, with the intent of discussing strategies for eliminating the arms trafficking network(s) that supply guns to the drug cartels.
November 2009: Surveillance of straw purchasers began under the operation named Fast and Furious. Licensed American gun dealers who were involved in gun sales to straw purchasers voiced concerns about the operation and the possibility of guns falling into the wrong hands.
March 2010: Complaints from field agents about letting guns walk reached such a crescendo that a supervisor in Phoenix rebuked field agents in an email, and implied they might be fired.
June 2010: With somewhere between 1500 and 2000 firearms “walked” into Mexico and beginning to turn up at crime scenes in Mexico, ATF agents stationed in Mexico also expressed their objections to the operation. American gun dealers began to demand reassurances from the ATF that guns wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
December 14, 2010: US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a firefight with illegal immigrants in Arizona armed with semi-automatic rifles traced back to Fast and Furious. ATF field agents immediately contacted ATF headquarters in Washington and the Office of the Inspector General. Receiving no reply, they then contacted Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and began leaking information to conservative bloggers, notably Mike Vanderboegh of the blog, “Sipsey Street Irregulars,” and David Cordrea of the blog, “The War on Guns,” and “Examiner.com.”
January 25, 2011: the US Attorney for the District of Arizona and the ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division held a joint news conference in which they announced indictments against twenty straw purchasers, called operation Fast and Furious a huge success, and denied that any gun had ever been allowed to walk into Mexico.
February 4, 2011: Assistant Attorney General Robert Weich, in a letter to Senator Chuck Grassley, denied that the ATF had ever allowed guns to walk into Mexico. Later that same month, Attorney General Eric Holder asked the DOJ Inspector General to conduct an investigation of operation Fast and Furious. That investigation has not yet been completed.
February 15, 2011: Homeland Security Special Agent Jaime Zapata, on assignment with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement was killed in Mexico by the Los Zetas cartel with a gun purchased in Texas by a known straw buyer supposedly under surveillance by the ATF.
March, 2011: President Barack Obama gave an interview in which he denied that either he or Attorney General Eric Holder had ever authorized or discussed operation Fast and Furious.
May, 2011: Attorney General Holder appeared before Congress and reiterated he did not know who authorized Fast and Furious, and also stated that he had only heard about the operation for the first time within “the last few weeks.”
June, 2011: One of the whistleblowers within the ATF was fired for leaking documents to bloggers about Fast and Furious, but the ATF denied the firing was retaliatory.
August, 2011: Three of the ATF supervisors of Fast and Furious were transferred from Phoenix to the Washington, DC office into management positions. The ATF Director was reassigned to the DOJ, and the US Attorney for the District of Arizona resigned.
October, 2011: Documents from the National Drug Intelligence Center (a branch of the DOJ) and from the Assistant Attorney General were discovered that proved Attorney General Holder had been briefed on Fast and Furious as early as July, 2010, contradicting his statement that he had only heard about it a few weeks before the May, 2011 hearing.
November, 2011: Attorney General Holder testified before Congress that gunwalking had in fact been allowed in Fast and Furious, and that his office had “inaccurately” described the program previously. He denied he had been briefed or shown memos about the operation.
December, 2011: An email was discovered, written by the Assistant Director of Field Operations at ATF, showing agents had discussed using Fast and Furious as evidence in support of stronger gun regulation.
January, 2012: The criminal division chief of the Phoenix office of the US Attorney’s Office was reassigned. He subsequently retired and invoked his Fifth Amendment privileges to avoid testifying to Congress.
June 7, 2012: Attorney General Holder appeared again before Congress and again denied his personal knowledge of gunwalking being allowed in Fast and Furious. He has consistently refused to turn over documents requested by Congress.
June 20, 2012: Congress voted to recommend Holder be held in contempt for refusing to turn over the documents in question, and President Obama invoked executive privilege over the same documents.
(Executive privilege is defined as the principle that members of the executive branch of government cannot legally be forced to disclose their confidential communications when such disclosure would adversely affect the operations, decision-making, or functions of the executive branch. [emphasis mine])
“The privilege disappears altogether when there is any reason to believe government misconduct occurred.” District of Columbia Court of Appeals, 2004
June 28th, 2012: Congress voted along partisan lines to hold Attorney General Holder in both criminal and civilian contempt, the first time such a thing has occurred in American history. Opposing Democrats made a show of walking out, hand in hand, in protest. Since the criminal charge must, by law, come under the jurisdiction of the DOJ, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The civil charges are a different matter, but it is highly unlikely anything will come of it before the upcoming election.
So what does all this mean? Damned if I know. Some people have described this as another Watergate, but I find that comparison inaccurate at best and fallacious at worst. After all, no one, American or Mexican, died as a result of Watergate, and Fast and Furious resulted in two American deaths and—according to most estimates—several hundred Mexican deaths. Is it all a vast left-wing conspiracy at the highest levels of government to indirectly attack the Second Amendment of the Constitution? I have a hard time believing anyone could be stupid enough to concoct such a scheme, let alone think it might work, and I have a harder time believing anyone other than a sociopath could concoct a scheme so clearly destined to have fatal consequences. (The gun dealers asked to cooperate with the ATF immediately raised red flags about potential fatalities.) On the other hand, is it all, as Nancy Pelosi and others have claimed, a vast right-wing conspiracy, racially and politically motivated, and designed to somehow allow Republicans to engage in voter suppression? I have a hard time believing anyone could be stupid enough to concoct such a scheme, let alone think it might work. If Obama releases the documents he has claimed come under the executive privilege umbrella and there is nothing in them, every single member of congress who voted to find Holder in contempt will look like a breathless idiot. If the documents are turned over to congress by legal mandate and there is evidence incriminating Obama, Holder, or any other high-ranking official in the administration, then Nancy Pelosi and the other dissenting Democrats will all look like breathless idiots.
Of course, one could argue that everyone in congress, the senate, and the executive branch is very much a breathless idiot, but that would take us into Mark Twain territory. The thing that concerns me most is the issue of executive privilege. It only applies to the functions and operations of the executive branch.
Then again, perhaps I too am grotesquely overestimating the intelligence of the all parties concerned, on both sides of the aisle.