The Corner

Fast & Furious Was . . . Bush’s Fault

I was only able to take in parts of Attorney General Eric Holder’s just-completed Senate testimony. But that was enough to see that “Bush did it” is going to be the Democrats’ excuse for the inexcusable “Fast & Furious” operation conducted by ATF on the Obama administration’s watch.

On the Obama administration’s watch. That is the biggest problem with the Democrats’ strategy. Fast & Furious did not begin until 2009, months after the end of the Bush administration. Given that, one might think that even today’s Democrats would be unable with a straight face to lay this disaster at the feet of Obama’s predecessor. But then one wouldn’t know today’s Democrats.

The key to their strategy is conflating two very different programs: Operation Fast & Furious and a Bush era ATF initiative known as “Operation Wide Receiver.” In the questions from Judiciary Committee Democrats (principally, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer — there may have been others but, again, I didn’t see the entire hearing), it emerged that Wide Receiver began in 2006, when Alberto Gonzales was the Bush administration attorney general. Senator Schumer took pains to describe Wide Receiver as involving the “tracing” of firearms that crossed into Mexico. As we shall see, Wide Receiver’s notion of tracing was night-and-day different from the tracing involved in the reckless gun-walking approach employed by Fast & Furious. Obviously, however, Democrats hope that if they get enough help from their friends in the media, the public will miss the distinction.

Schumer made much of the happenstance that a briefing, said to have included information on Wide Receiver, was prepared for Michael Mukasey in late 2007, after he succeeded Gonzales as AG. (This is an amusing contradiction in the Democrats’ strategy: If a memo addressed to Holder in the middle of Fast & Furious emerges, you’re supposed to understand that, as attorney general, he is way too busy to read every memo; but if a memo is found to have been addressed to Mukasey or Gonzales years before Fast & Furious began, you should see them as the architects of gun-walking!)

Schumer pointed out that AG Mukasey had met with his counterpart, the Mexican attorney general, after the briefing, and that he had expressed a commitment to stanch the flow of guns to destinations south of the border. Schumer took these unremarkable facts, added the gloss that Wide Receiver involved gun tracing, and wildly theorized that it was very likely the subject of gun-walking came up in the Mukasey briefing — even though both Schumer and Holder conceded that they did not really know what was discussed at the briefing or even who was present at it (details you might figure Holder would be up on if it actually showed that this whole Fast & Furious fiasco was a Bush creation).

It was left to Republican Senators Charles Grassley and John Cornyn to lay bare some crucial distinctions between to two ATF operations. Wide Receiver actually involved not gun-walking but controlled delivery. Unlike gun-walking, which seems (for good reason) to have been unheard of until Fast & Furious, controlled delivery is a very common law enforcement tactic. Basically, the agents know the bad guys have negotiated a deal to acquire some commodity that is either illegal itself (e.g., heroin, child porn) or illegal for them to have/use (e.g., guns, corporate secrets). The agents allow the transfer to happen under circumstances where they are in control — i.e., they are on the scene conducting surveillance of the transfer, and sometimes even participating undercover in the transfer. As soon as the transfer takes place, they can descend on the suspects, make arrests, and seize the commodity in question — all of which makes for powerful evidence of guilt. 

Senator Schumer’s drawing of an equivalence between “tracing” in a controlled-delivery situation and “tracing” in Fast & Furious is laughable. In a controlled delivery firearms case, guns are traced in the sense that agents closely and physically follow them — they don’t just note the serial numbers or other identifying markers. The agents are thus able to trace the precise path of the guns from, say, American dealers to straw purchasers to Mexican buyers.

To the contrary, Fast & Furious involved uncontrolled deliveries — of thousands of weapons. It was an utterly heedless program in which the feds allowed these guns to be sold to straw purchasers — often leaning on reluctant gun dealers to make the sales. The straw purchasers were not followed by close physical surveillance; they were freely permitted to bulk transfer the guns to, among others, Mexican drug gangs and other violent criminals — with no agents on hand to swoop in, make arrests, and grab the firearms. The inevitable result of this was that the guns have been used (and will continue to be used) in many crimes, including the murder of Brian Terry, a U.S. border patrol agent.


In sum, the Fast & Furious idea of “trace” is that, after violent crimes occur in Mexico, we can trace any guns the Mexican police are lucky enough to seize back to the sales to U.S. straw purchasers … who should never have been allowed to transfer them (or even buy them) in the first place. That is not law enforcement; that is abetting a criminal rampage. 

As Sen. Cornyn pointed out, there is another major distinction between Wide Receiver and Fast & Furious. The former was actually a coordinated effort between American and Mexican authorities. Law enforcement agents in both countries kept each other apprised about suspected transactions and tried to work together to apprehend law-breakers. To the contrary, Fast & Furious was a unilateral, half-baked scheme cooked up by an agency of the Obama Justice Department — an agency that was coordinating with the Justice Department on the operation and that turned to Main Justice in order to get wiretapping authority.  

By the time Cornyn was done drawing this stark contrast between Wide Receiver and Fast & Furious, Holder was reduced to conceding, “I’m not trying to equate the two.” That is big of him given that the two cannot be equated. But the attorney general seemed fine with the effort to equate them — to make them one and the same — when it was Schumer asking the questions. Expect the effort to continue. “Bush did it” may be a tired defense, and in this instance a preposterous one, but it’s the one the Democratic base loves to hear.


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