The Why of Fast and Furious

Over the last few days, I’ve been digesting the long new report from Darrell Issa and Charles Grassley about Fast and Furious. It’s only the first in a series of three, it deliberately leaves out some confidential information, and the Justice Department still has not provided a lot of important documents, so it is hardly the last word.

But I think the report is a good first step toward answering the question, Why would the ATF think it could fight crime by letting Mexican drug cartels buy guns in the U.S.? It seems to me that there are three different elements to the answer.

The first is that the ATF didn’t want to stop at arresting straw purchasers — they wanted to get at the cartels, and to do so they needed to prove the link between the Arizona gun ring and the Mexican gangs. Contrary to earlier reports, the ATF did experiment with tracking the weapons electronically — but apparently did so with only two of the roughly 2,000 weapons. (Search the report for “GPS.”)

The second, which is closely related to the first, is that arresting the straw purchasers would have alerted the cartels to the investigation and made further evidence-gathering impossible. So, even when investigators had enough information to arrest the purchasers, they didn’t, in the hopes that further work would allow for a bigger bust. This meant that more and more guns kept heading south.

The third, as outlined in Fortune’s piece on Fast and Furious, is that the local U.S. Attorneys refused to prosecute some cases on the grounds that there wasn’t enough evidence. Fortune blamed this on Arizona’s gun culture and America’s lax laws, but the new report says the attorneys misunderstood the relevant policies. According to the report, the ATF took the prosecutors’ reticence as a go-ahead for gun-walking. As I pointed out before, regardless of what the prosecutors said, the ATF didn’t have to advise gun stores to sell weapons to criminals — but they did.

A few additional notes:

While this report focuses on the local ATF office rather than headquarters, it tends to give the sense that HQ did not devise the program and if anything tried to contain it. For example, one ATF higher-up demanded an “exit strategy.” HQ obviously didn’t do a very good job, but certainly I see no evidence in the report that would support the conspiracy theory that the Obama Justice Department concocted Fast and Furious as a way to gin up support for gun control.

Also, there’s just a lot of general incompetence here. For example, the ATF spent a considerable amount of effort identifying suspects that other federal law-enforcement agencies had already identified.

We’re not to the bottom of this yet, but we’re getting closer.

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