In January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified at a much anticipated hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He addressed — not for the first time — concerns related to Operation Fast and Furious, a contentious law enforcement operation involving weapons smuggling into Mexico that went awry.
“I want to make clear there is no attempt at any kind of cover up,” Holder asserted during this latest hearing. However, his role in Fast and Furious is unclear. While last year he testified that he was not aware of the operation until a very late stage, internal Justice Department documents seem to state the opposite. If it’s true that Holder was aware of this blundered operation which resulted in the death of a border patrol officer, and not only approved of its tactics, but in particular lied about his involvement, he should take responsibility for his actions and step down.
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón assumed the presidency in December 2006 and declared a war on drug cartels, barely a day has gone by that has not seen drug-related violence in the country. In mid-January, the Mexican government updated its death toll in this conflict, reporting that 47,515 people had been killed in drug-related violence since 2006, though this data is not confirmed and could even be higher. It is widely suspected that many of the weapons used by the cartels are smuggled illegally from the U.S., but given that in March 2009 the U.S. government announced its commitment to increase its efforts to reduce the illegal flow of weapons across its border, it is rather shocking and even appalling to learn of an authorized government operation which ran from late 2009 to early 2011 that allowed the smuggling of weapons into Mexico.
Operation Fast and Furious, an initially secret operation executed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), allowed thousands of weapons to cross the U.S. border — a tactic known as “gun-walking” — with the goal of tracking the smuggled guns from the initial buyers to senior drug cartel members. However, the FTA lost track of as many as 1,400 guns, some of which have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States. The flawed operation became public shortly after border patrol agent Brian Terry was shot dead in December 2010 in Arizona and two AK-47 semiautomatic rifles at the scene were traced back to Fast and Furious. In March 2011, FTA Agent John Dodson blew the whistle on the operation describing how he had been ordered to let guns “walk” into Mexico. He further claimed, “The gun walking strategy was approved all the way up to the Justice Department.”
In May 2011, Holder told a Judiciary Committee hearing that he had heard about Fast and Furious only a few weeks earlier. However, internal Justice Department documents, such as a memo discussing Fast and Furious dating back to July 2010, seem to indicate that Holder had been aware of the operation for at least 10 months, if not more. Allowing illegal weapons smuggling into Mexico is in itself a very questionable tactic — even if the ultimate goal was to capture the big players of the Mexican cartels — but it would be completely unacceptable for the attorney general to lie about his involvement in this operation. And if Holder truly was not aware of it (which the Justice Department documents seem to contradict), how is it possible that he, as the head of the department overseeing the ATF, was not informed? Either way, the attorney general has some serious questions to answer, and I hope he takes responsibility for his actions. Meanwhile, unfortunately, if Dodson is right, “Thousands of Fast and Furious weapons are still out there and will be claiming victims on both sides of the border for years to come.”