By John Velleco
The testimony before the Oversight committee by Holder and numerous officials from the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies was a clinic on obfuscation -- and it left Issa with little choice.
“It’s time we know the whole truth,” Issa said of this latest development in the widening scandal. “The documents this subpoena demands will provide answers to questions that Justice officials have tried to avoid since this investigation began eight months ago.”
The California Republican is not a lawyer by profession, but Issa, along with his relatively small staff, has managed to go toe-to-toe with the army of lawyers spread across the federal government.
Holder: Point man on guns
Issa’s focus on the Attorney General is well-placed. Holder became the point man on gun control during his stint with the Clinton administration and was an obvious choice to help navigate the Obama administration through the turbulent waters of gun control.
But he was not alone. Another figure, whose name is conspicuously absent in much of the current debate over Fast and Furious, is also a leader on the gun control issue: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
From the start, Obama, Clinton, Holder and another cabinet member, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, were itching to make headway on restricting guns, but how could that be done without exacting an unacceptable political price?
For that, the foursome looked south. With violence increasing along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2009, the Obama administration found the perfect scapegoat.
Holder was the first to test the waters. In a February 25, 2009 press conference, Holder spoke for the new administration:
There are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons. I think that will have a positive impact in Mexico at a minimum.
Holder was quickly repudiated by Democrats in Congress, more than 60 of whom said in a letter that a renewal of the gun ban was a non-starter, and Holder was forced to back away from his comments.
The 90% Myth
A month later, as she embarked on her first trip to Mexico as Secretary of State, Clinton told CBS news that, “The guns that are used by the drug cartels against the police and the military, 90 percent of them come from America.”
Clinton’s use of the 90% number sent honest reporters looking for verification. Instead, the number was debunked within days. Still, the administration clung tenaciously to the 90% claim.
The following month, in April 2009, speaking at a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama said:
This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border.
Incriminating March 2009 press briefing
Interestingly, the day before Clinton went to Mexico in March, no mention was made of any gun ban or the alleged 90% number at a press briefing on the problem of violence in Mexico held at the White House by Napolitano, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg (both the number two men in their respective departments).
Ogden spoke in broad terms, noting that, “Attorney General Holder and I are committed to taking advantage of all Department resources and those of associated agencies to target the Mexican cartels.”
Ogden also detailed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) efforts “to fortify its Project Gunnrunner, which is aimed at disrupting arms trafficking between the United States and Mexico.”
From Gunrunner to Fast and Furious
Project Gunrunner was the umbrella under which Operation Fast and Furious, an ATF brainchild in which thousands of firearms were allowed to walk into the hands of Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartels, was developed.
On its face, the intent of Fast and Furious was to allow straw purchasers to illegally buy guns in the U.S. and transfer the weapons to cartel members, with authorities following the guns up the criminal supply chain to bring down the cartels.
But that never happened. Over the protests of U.S. gun dealers and rank-and-file ATF agents, thousands of guns were allowed to be purchased and to simply “walk” across the border. ATF never knew exactly where the guns would end up, and in reality the agency became a supplier of firearms to violent drug cartels.
Subsequently, Fast and Furious firearms were found at the murder scenes of two U.S. government agents as well as over 150 Mexican law enforcement officers. American and Mexican police were killed by guns furnished by the U.S. government and paid for by taxpayers.
While Fast and Furious was not specifically mentioned at the press briefing (it would begin operating later in the year), that meeting at the White house shows that the heads of at least three departments of the federal government were intensely aware of what was happening along the border at the very beginning of the Obama administration.
One by one, however, Obama, Holder, Napolitano and Clinton (plus a host of lower level officials) have denied any knowledge of Fast and Furious prior to 2011.
Rep. Issa is hot on the trail of Holder, thanks to a string of incriminating emails and other evidence. But all four were huddled around the border in early 2009, and all four made trips to Mexico in March-April of that year.
Subpoenas for Clinton, Napolitano?
Dissecting what people in the highest levels of government knew and when they knew it leads only to troubling conclusions. Either they all have lied, under oath or in public comments, about their knowledge of Fast and Furious.
Or there exists an unbelievable level of incompetence at the State Department (for not being aware of thousands of guns being sent to violent gangs in another country), at Homeland Security (which claims no knowledge of guns being allowed to walk across a border which falls under its jurisdiction to control) and at the Justice Department (with high-level officials claiming no knowledge of a multi-million dollar operation occurring right under its nose).
Rep. Issa’s 22-point subpoena of documents related to Holder will pull on strings that could unravel a much wider network of corruption. The available evidence strongly suggests that Holder lied to Congress about his knowledge of Fast and Furious. If that’s the case, while it may not be proof positive that the heads of other departments lied as well, it will at least lead Issa’s investigation to take a much closer look at the roles of Clinton and Napolitano.
And even if Holder and the rest lose their jobs, it shouldn’t end there. Guns were illegally run into Mexico, where they could be “found” by Mexican police and traced back to the U.S. Was this done, as some former ATF agents suggest, to pad statistics in order to justify the 90% number and to serve as a rallying cry for a reinstatement of the semi-auto ban? If so, that is criminal behavior, made infinitely worse by the fact that many innocent people have died as a result.
John Velleco is the Director of Federal Affairs for Gun Owners of America, a grassroots lobbying organization with over 300,000 members nationwide.