During a White House roundtable with three Spanish-language media outlets on Wednesday, President Barack Obama skated around questions about Operation Fast and Furious.
“We’re working very hard to have a much more effective interdiction effort … we are checking southbound transit … to capture illegal guns, illegal cash transfers to cartels,” he said at the morning event with representatives from Yahoo!, MSN Latino, and AOL Latino/Huffington Post Latino Voices. “It is something we’ve been building … it’s not yet finished, and there’s more work to do,” he said.
Conservative Action Fund treasurer Shaun McCutcheon told The Daily Caller that Obama’s inability to answer basic questions about Operation Fast and Furious suggests the administration is covering up even more about the controversial program.
“The more that comes out about this Fast and Furious scandal, the more we realize that there are very real dangers in a government that is too big to monitor itself,” McCutcheon said in an email. “The Obama administration refuses to take responsibility for the deaths of Americans and Mexicans alike under their watch because of their program.”
Obama blamed budget problems, in part, for what some see as ATF’s incompetence. “Part of the problem is budgetary [and] … we are going to have to figure out ways to operate smarter and more efficiently in investigations without a huge expansion of resources because those resources are aren’t there.”
No reporters at the roundtable pressed Obama further on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program. Operation Fast and Furious was an Obama administration program in which ATF agents facilitated the sale of firearms to Mexican drug cartels via “straw purchasers” who could legally purchases guns in the United States, but were doing so with the intention of trafficking them into Mexico.
House oversight committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley have pursued a congressional investigation into the ATF operation over the past several months, and that has led to at least a few high-ranking Obama administration resignations. Their investigations have also revealed that White House officials were aware of Fast and Furious and the ATF tactics the program employed.
Conservative groups are unlikely to let this scandal die down without greater accountability.
“This Fast and Furious scandal reminds us that cronyism is murderous and its politics are dangerous,” Ali Akbar, a political consultant for the conservative Vice and Victory told TheDC. “I’m talking with other conservative groups and we’re not letting this go. We applaud Chairman Issa for pursuing this national tragedy that looks like it trickles all the way up to the top.”
UPDATE 5:21 p.m.
From the White House press office, here’s the full transcript of Obama’s Fast and Furious exchange on Wednesday:
MR. [JOSE] SIADE [of Yahoo! Espanol]: Mr. President, this question comes from Karina in Ohio: Mr. President, what is your strategy to stop the flow of weapons bought with drug money in the U.S. and then sent to Mexico, especially after what happened in Operation Fast and Furious?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, this is a great challenge, and I’ve been the first one to admit — I’ve said this publicly in bilateral meetings with President Calderón that there’s a two-way street in terms of the problems of transnational drug operations. The Mexican government I think has been very courageous in taking on these cartels, at great cost, obviously, with respect to violence in Mexico. That’s the right thing to do.
We have to be a more effective partner in both reducing demand for drugs here in the United States and for stemming the flow of weapons and cash that help to finance and facilitate these cartels. So we’re working very hard to have a much more effective interdiction effort of south to north — or north to south traffic than we have in the past, so we are checking southbound transit to try to capture illegal guns, illegal cash transfers to drug cartels. It is something that we have been building over the last couple of years; it’s not yet finished.
And there’s going to be more work to do.
Part of the issue here, obviously, is budgetary. At a time when the federal government is looking for ways to save money, we’re going to have to figure out ways to operate smarter and more effective in our investigations without a huge expansion of resources because those resources aren’t there.
MR. SIADE: And in terms of the demand here in the U.S., what kind of efforts —
THE PRESIDENT: With respect to the demand in the U.S., our drug czar here in the United States I think has done a very good job working with schools and local communities, working with local law enforcement to try and continue to reduce drug demand. One of the things that I’ve always believed is that — and this is reflective in my administration’s policy — is that we can’t just think about this as a law enforcement issue; we also have to think of it as a public health issue.
If you think about the enormous changes that have been made in terms of people’s use of tobacco, for example, that wasn’t because they were arrested. It was also because young people were taught that smoking was bad for your health, it didn’t make you cool — public service announcements. So I think taking a comprehensive approach that includes interdiction and law enforcement, but also takes into account public health strategies, treatment.
A lot of cities around the country, if you decide that you want to rid yourself of drugs, you may have to wait three months, six months, to get into a local treatment program. Well, that’s not going to be particularly effective. So what we’ve been trying to see is can we get more resources into treatment, more resources into a public health approach, even as we continue to target the cartels, the drug kingpins, those who are really responsible for perpetrating the drug trade in communities across the country.
TheDC’s Neil Munro contributed reporting for this story.