Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious


In the fall of 2011, controversy arose over Attorney General Eric Holder’s role in endorsing “Fast and Furious,” a program which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms (ATF)—an agency of the Justice Department—had administered during 2009-10. In that initiative, the ATF sold some 2,500 guns—including 34 sniper rifles with an effective lethal range of approximately 2,000 meters—to “straw purchasers” in the U.S. who agreed to subsequently smuggle the guns into Mexico and put them in the hands of cartel leaders, who supposedly were to be arrested at some subsequent point.

The entire “Fast and Furious” operation ended with only 20 indictments of straw purchasers—all of whom were already familiar to U.S. authorities from the outset. Moreover, the program was linked directly to two weapons found on the scene where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered in Arizona in December 2010. By the fall of 2011, the weapons that had been transferred as part of “Fast and Furious” had been used in at least 200 murdersin Mexico. They also had been identified at 11 additional crime scenes in the United States. offered an insightful analysis of the motivations that underpinned “Fast and Furious”:

“The Obama Administration knew that they had to find a new way to justify restrictions on American gun owners, preferably without having to deal with the legislature.

“Enter the ‘Fast and Furious’ program, a plan that would let a bunch of weapons cross the border into Mexico, knowing full well that eventually, some of those guns would be bound to turn up in criminal hands there, perhaps being used in violent confrontations between gangs, or even in shoot-outs with Mexican law enforcement. With the levels of drug and gang violence in Mexico, it was a good bet.

“Then, after a number of the tracked guns were used in criminal acts, the plan was that Mexico would make a very loud and vigorous ‘protest’ to the U.S. government, demanding that ‘something be done’ about all those American guns that are ‘flooding into Mexico’ — giving Obama a talking point in order to ratchet up U.S. gun control, while providing Mexican officials with a convenient scapegoat for their own inability to stop the carnage. Both the American and the Mexican administrations win.

“Which brings us to the essence of the strategy behind ‘Fast and Furious.’ Once the ‘gun problem’ involved relations between two sovereign nations, it would then no longer be merely a domestic matter, it would be an international ‘crisis’ — a matter of foreign policy. And in case you forgot your high school civics, foreign policy is the sole province of the Executive Branch, in other words, the President.

“Which means Barack Obama would have had a whole range of options previously unavailable in his war on guns.

“The president could push through an international agreement with Mexico, which would naturally involve ‘measures to control the flow of illegal guns’ — like closing down gun shows, for example. He could also sign on to an even broader ‘small arms’ treaty like the one the U.N. has had simmering on the back burner for several years. Or, he could simply issue a series of  Executive Orders….

“[W]e are left with only one inescapable conclusion, and that is that the President of the United States and his Attorney General Eric Holder were complicit in an attempt to fabricate an international crisis in order to advance their anti-gun agenda, and in doing so, have facilitated the deaths of an untold number of innocent victims. Which also means that, in a very real sense, Agent Brian Terry’s blood is on their hands.”

While being questioned under oath during a Judiciary Committee hearing on May 3, 2011, Holder indicated that he had known nothing about “Fast and Furious” until about April 2011. But soon thereafter, a newly discovered memo (dated July 2010) showed that Michael Walther, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center, had already told Holder that straw buyers in the “Fast and Furious” operation “are responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to the Mexican drug trafficking cartels.” Other documents also indicated that Holder had begun receiving weekly briefings on the program from the National Drug Intelligence Center no later than July 5, 2010. Moreover, former ATF special agent William Newell testified under oath that “the DHS, IRS, DEA, ATF, ICE and the Obama Justice Department were all involved” in the operation.

In 2011 the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa) issued a subpoena instructing Holder to turn over all internal Justice Department documents related to the Fast and Furious program — in particular, documents explaining how DOJ first learned that there were problems with the operation.

By June 2011, DOJ’s delaying tactics were so transparent that Issa began threatening Holder with contempt citations. As of late June 2012, DOJ had supplied fewer than 8 percent of the 80,000 documents the congressional investigators sought. (Further, DOJ had blocked 48 of the 70 Justice Department officials who were  involved in Fast and Furious, from testifying.) House Republicans continued to pressure the Attorney General to turn over the remaining documents, but Holder refused.

On June 20, 2012, President Obama granted a request by Holder to exert executive privilege over the documents in question. That same day, the House Committee—having exhausted all other means of obtaining the documents from the Justice Department—voted 23 to 17 (in a vote that was split along party lines) to hold the Attorney General in contempt of Congress for failing to produce the missing documents.

As it was abundantly clear that the Obama administration had no intention of providing the subpoenaed documents, the government watchdog group Judicial Watch in June 2002 filed a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking the records that were being withheld from the Oversight Committee by Holder and Obama.

On June 28, 2012, the full House of Representatives voted 255-67 to uphold the criminal contempt charge against Holder. Most Democrats walked out of the vote in a gesture of protest led by the Congressional Black Caucus, but 17 Democrats sided with the majority Republicans. The vote represented the first time a sitting cabinet member had ever been held in contempt by a chamber of Congress.

On July 31, 2012, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform issued the first of a three-part joint Congressional report on “Fast & Furious.” A few days later, ATF Deputy Director William Hoover, who was sharply criticized in the report, resigned his post.

The second part of this report — titled “Fast and Furious: The Anatomy of a Failed Operation” — was released on October 29, 2012. The executive summary contained the following text:

“Operation Fast and Furious was not a strictly local operation conceived by a rogue ATF office in Phoenix, but rather the product of a deliberate strategy created at the highest levels of the Justice Department aimed at identifying the leaders of a major gun trafficking ring. This strategy, along with institutional inertia, led to the genesis, implementation, and year-long duration of Fast and Furious. Shortly after he took office, Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. delivered a series of speeches about combating violence along the southwest border. He focused specifically on fighting Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, and in the fall of 2009, the Justice Department released a document crystallizing the Attorney General’s vision, entitled ‘Department of Justice Strategy for Combating the Mexican Cartels.’ As part of this new strategy, the Department of Justice made a tactical decision to shift its focus from arresting straw purchasers to identifying members of large illegal trafficking networks. These investigations would involve multiple federal agencies, and local U.S. Attorney’s offices would coordinate them. In October 2009, the Deputy Attorney General led a newly created Southwest Border Strategy Group designed to ensure the effective implementation of this strategy. The ATF Phoenix Field Division received the Department’s new strategy favorably. Leaders of the Phoenix Field Division believed that the new strategy allowed agents to witness illegally purchased weapons being transferred to third parties without interdiction, even if lawful interdiction was possible. […] Though the Criminal Division assigned an attorney to assist with Fast and Furious, the operation quickly spun out of control. […] Thus far, the Department has failed to reprimand any senior Department officials for their actions–or lack thereof–during Fast and Furious. In fact, several have received promotions. The management culture of the Department must change to prevent such a deadly operation from occurring again. Time is of the essence. Change must begin now.”

In July 2014, Judge John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered DOJ to turn over a “Vaughn index” of all Fast and Furious-requested documents. Bates’ ruling was clear: “In the [February 15, 2013] order granting the stay, this court explicitly noted that the DOJ ‘does not seek, and the court will not award, an indefinite stay pending ultimate resolution of the House Committee litigation,’ and  that ‘the benefits of delaying this case might well [become] too attenuated to justify any further delay …Because many of the issues to be resolved in this case do not overlap with the House committee, and because resolving those issues will not risk upsetting the delicate balance of powers in subpoena disputes between the political branches, the Court will require DOJ to produce a Vaughn index here.” Bates also noted that no court has ever “expressly recognized” the executive privilege claims made by Obama preventing these documents from being seen by Congress and the American public.

In August 2014, DOJ was also ordered to turn over a “privilege log,” a.k.a. a list of the documents being withheld. Both orders were supposed to be fulfilled by Oct. 1, 2014. But in a motion filed on September 15, 2004, lawyers from DOJ asked U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson not to require the transfer of Fast and Furious-related documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, until after her rulings could be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. As journalist Arnold Ahlert observed: “If their bid is successful, it could push the appeals process past the Obama administration’s time in office. In short, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is trying to run out the clock.”

On the eve of the November 2014 midterm elections, Justice Department officials gave House investigators 64,280 pages of documents related to Operation Fast & Furious, which President Obama had previously claimed were exempt from congressional review. This was only a partial fulfillment of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s request, however. Committee chairman Darrell Issa said: “Since these pages still do not represent the entire universe of the documents the House of Representatives is seeking related to the Justice Department’s cover-up of the botched gun-walking scandal that contributed to the death of a Border Patrol agent, our court case will continue.”

The third and final part of the joint Congressional report on “Fast & Furious” — titled “Obstruction of Congress by the Department of Justice” — was published on June 7, 2017.

On May 8, 2019, the House of Representatives and the Justice Department informed a federal appeals court that they had reached a settlement in the “Fast and Furious” court case on April 10. In the deal, both sides agreed to drop their appeals and lawsuits.

Additional Resources:

Operation Fast and Furious: How a Botched Justice Department Operation Led to a Standoff over Executive Privilege
By John Malcolm (The Heritage Foundation)
July 25, 2012

Congressional Report on Operation Fast and Furious: The Buck Stops…Well…Somewhere Else
By John Malcolm (The Heritage Foundation)
August 27, 2012

Fast and Furious and OCDETF
By Andrew C. McCarthy
June 23, 2012

“Fast and Furious” Indeed: The Real Motive Behind the “Gun Walker” Fiasco
By John Caile
June 22, 2011

The Biggest Scandal in U.S. History
By Ann Coulter
June 27, 2012

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