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Obama’s stalling on Fast and Furious files hints at secrets

Attorney General Eric Holder testifiesbefore House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing June 7 Washington.  |  Charles Dharapak~AP

Attorney General Eric Holder testifiesbefore a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on June 7 in Washington. | Charles Dharapak~AP

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:43AM

The idea of tracking the illegal gun trade to Mexican drug cartels had its genesis in the Bush administration.

In other words, you could say it was a program the Obama administration inherited. But you can also bet your bottom dollar that Attorney General Eric Holder wouldn’t be withholding documents from Congress and President Barack Obama wouldn’t be claiming executive privilege to protect them if whatever went disastrously wrong with Operation Fast and Furious could be laid at the feet of his Republican predecessor.

No, Obama and Holder would set up express truck service from the Justice Department to Capitol Hill to rush those documents to congressional investigators.

I’ve always thought the Fast and Furious scandal would turn out to be a case of bureaucratic bungling — embarrassing certainly, maybe cause for a few heads to roll, and a source of run-of-the-mill friction between a Justice Department headed by a Democrat and a congressional investigation conducted by Republicans. Now Obama has elevated it to a whole new level by invoking executive privilege. What’s in those documents that’s so important — or damaging — to the Justice Department that Obama must throw up the extraordinary barrier of executive privilege to keep them from Congress?

The history of this case is rooted in good intentions — to go beyond prosecuting low-level gun buyers and arrest the upper echelon of gun smugglers and their high-level customers in the drug cartels. The first stab at it came in 2007 when the Bush Justice Department set up Operation Wide Receiver to track gun sales from Arizona to Mexico to make big arrests. It didn’t happen, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost track of some of the weapons. You would think that would have been a warning of the risks of “gun walking.”

But the Obama Justice Department decided to have another go at it with Operation Fast and Furious. Hundreds of weapons “walked” and ATF agents lost track of them as the mission went disastrously and fatally wrong. In a 2010 confrontation with five illegal immigrants, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed. Two rifles traced to Fast and Furious were found at the scene, but the bullet that killed Terry was too badly damaged to identify the gun it came from. By one estimate, as many as 200 Mexicans have been killed by Fast and Furious guns.

ATF agents disturbed by a gun-interdiction operation gone wild complained up the chain of command but were rebuffed. One of them went to Congress, sparking the probe. To make matters worse, Holder sent Congress a letter in early 2011 claiming the ATF hadn’t let guns walk, only to have to retract it 10 months later when it proved to be false. The House Oversight Committee is seeking documents to understand why Justice gave it false information and has cited Holder for contempt for not providing them. A full House vote on the citation is set next week.

In sum, we have a U.S. Border Patrol agent dead, 200 Mexican citizens murdered and, according to CBS News, $1 million in purchases of 1,600 firearms from Phoenix-area gun shops. Surely Brian Terry’s family and the American people deserve an answer to the question of what’s in the documents that caused Obama to invoke executive privilege and a constitutional confrontation with Congress. That would be a big fuss for a simple case of bureaucratic bungling.

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