Fast and Furious reaches a boiling point

Nick Ryan Founder, American Future Fund
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Fast and Furious, the ill-fated gun-walking operation that fueled crime, disgraced federal officials and raised questions about the integrity of the Obama administration’s Justice Department, has reached a boiling point in Washington — to the point where Attorney General Eric Holder is claiming executive privilege to prevent the release of important documents requested by Congress.

This new turn is a strange departure for the administration, and may not stick. Before assuming office, then-Sen. Barack Obama criticized President George W. Bush for his “tendency … to hide behind executive privilege.” This new stance creates an inconvenient parallel at an inconvenient moment, as Obama tries to win back independents who are disappointed in his allegiance to Bush policies he had once criticized.

It’s also a departure from the administration’s pledge to transparency, one that may result in dire political consequences. It’s not just the voters: Members of the House and Senate have run out of patience. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted today to hold Eric Holder in contempt. The rest of the House is waiting to vote on it next week.

The key actors in the drama are Holder; Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

Previously, Issa proposed a negotiating session with Holder to determine how the House Committee can gain access to documents relevant to internal Justice Department deliberations. Holder declined to help. Issa wants more information than Holder has been willing to release.

Issa’s call for a contempt of Congress vote against Holder is a major confrontation with serious consequences. This doesn’t just affect the reputation of the attorney general and the Justice Department, but Obama himself.

The facts about the once-secret Fast and Furious operation have been known for months. In the fall of 2009, the federal ATF office in Phoenix devised a scheme to supply and track the flow of firearms purchased in U.S. gun shops to major arms traffickers along the southwestern border and in Mexico. The scheme backfired when the ATF lost track of as many as 1,500 guns, many of which fell into the hands of criminals in Mexico.

Following the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, investigators discovered that two of the killers responsible used assault rifles sold in the Fast and Furious operation. Dozens more Fast and Furious weapons have been used in violent crimes in the U.S.

The scandal has resulted in the resignation of a U.S. attorney, the reassignment of ATF officials and the implication of other federal agencies in the operation. But major questions remain unanswered.

At the root of the congressional inquiry and the Justice Department’s refusal to release key documents is the issue of when the attorney general and perhaps even the president knew about Fast and Furious. A Justice Department letter to Grassley in early 2011 denied that the department allowed guns to “walk” into criminal hands. Nine months later, following an investigation, the department rescinded the letter and stated that it was not true.

Congress is still asking: When did the attorney general learn about Fast and Furious? Did he approve and monitor the operation? Did he ever inform the president about the operation? Why did the Justice Department deny the gun-walking operation and then admit it?

We will know the answers to these questions one way or another. The answers should come voluntarily. If not, there will be consequences.

Nick Ryan is founder of American Future Fund.