In May, Attorney General Eric Holder said in congressional testimony that he’d first heard of Fast and Furious — the operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives in which agents deliberately allowed gun traffickers in Arizona to purchase weapons for Mexican drug cartels — “over the last few weeks.” Newly released documents call that assertion into question, and Holder should give the public a full accounting of what he knew and when he knew it.
The new documents are brief and heavily censored. However, they indicate that as early as July of 2010 Holder received memos from Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer that mentioned the operation. One memo from that month describes Fast and Furious thus: “This investigation, initiated in September 2009 in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Phoenix Police Department, involves a Phoenix-based firearms trafficking ring headed by Manuel Celis-Acosta. Celis-Acosta and [censored] straw purchasers are responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug cartels.”
While these memos do not explicitly reference the controversial aspect of Fast and Furious — that agents were letting guns “walk” instead of stopping the traffickers when they could — it’s clear that Breuer, at least, knew this was happening. Another document, an e-mail between two Justice Department officials, suggests having “Lanny” speak to the press when the Fast and Furious gun-trafficking prosecutions are revealed to the public — it will be a hard case to explain, the e-mail said, “given the number of guns that have walked.”
This comes on top of a revelation from late last week that Bill Newell, the special agent in charge of the ATF division that ran Fast and Furious, had been providing off-the-record e-mail updates to Kevin M. O’Reilly, a member of the White House national-security staff. (These updates, like the Breuer memos, did not mention gun-walking specifically.) In addition, it was recently reported that Mexico’s attorney general has identified 200 murders in which Fast and Furious guns were involved.
The Justice Department’s response thus far has not been satisfactory. It told CBS and Politico that Holder knew of an operation called “Fast and Furious” in 2010, but had learned the full details of the investigation only recently when he spoke to Congress in May of this year. This does not excuse his answer, considering that the question was not ambiguous: “When did you first know about the program, officially, I believe, called Fast and Furious?”
And regarding the e-mails, the department told CBS that the officials were discussing events that had unfolded before Holder became attorney general — a complete impossibility, considering that the e-mail mentions Fast and Furious by name, and the operation didn’t start until half a year into Holder’s tenure.
House Republicans are calling for Obama to instruct Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate this issue. We understand the impulse, but what are the odds of Eric Holder’s appointing a counsel with the bulldoggish independence to investigate him? Even if he did, the investigation would give the administration a handy excuse to cease any cooperation with Congress and any public comment on grounds of “an ongoing investigation.”
Republicans would be wiser to keep the heat on through their congressional committees. If Holder lied, it is most important that it be exposed to the public, which if aroused can act more decisively than any special prosecutor.