The U.S. House of Representatives will vote today on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over the botched Fast and Furious gun-running operation. Although many people are just now tuning in to the scandal, a Republican investigation into Fast and Furious has been quietly gaining steam in Congress for more than a year, turning the issue into a flashpoint for the conservative blogosphere. Now, with the contempt vote looming, the issue has sharply divided Republicans and Democrats, opening the floodgates for partisan theatrics and escalating conspiracy theories from both sides of the aisle.
But the scandal is more complicated than either party would have you believe. Below, we break down what you need to now about Operation Fast and Furious and the political pageant it has spawned.
What was Operation Fast and Furious?
Operation Fast and Furious was a botched gun trafficking sting run by the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Under the program, ATF agents lost track of about 2,500 guns, many of which were later found at violent crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico, including the murder site of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Fast and Furious was part of the broader “Project Gunrunner,” which was designed to stem cross-border arms trafficking through a controversial tactic known as “gunwalking,” in which agents would allow guns to “walk” across the border and into the hands of the drug cartels.
As Democrats love to point out, the ATF’s Project Gunrunner initiative actually began in 2005, under the Bush administration. It was expanded in 2010 to include other Justice Department agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, federal prosecutors, and senior officials from the department’s Washington headquarters, although it is not clear who knew about “gunwalking” tactics specifically.
Why would anyone have ever thought gunwalking was a good idea?
The idea behind Project Gunrunner was that, instead of arresting and trying to prosecute the “straw purchasers” who buy guns for the cartels, agents would track the guns up the cartel chain of command in order to identify — and theoretically start to eliminate — cartel arms trafficking networks.
In theory, the strategy makes sense — sort of. Straw purchasers are typically legal U.S. residents without criminal records, which makes it difficult to prosecute them for buying guns — usually the toughest consequence a straw purchaser will face is probation. Moreover, straw purchasers are relatively useless as informants — the minimal punishment and the threat of violence against them and their families if they turn on their bosses make them notoriously difficult to crack.
But in practice, the danger of letting guns walk is obvious — more than 50,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since 2006. To make matters worse, the ATF in Phoenix was ill-equipped to track the guns bought by straw purchasers; despite help from the U.S. Attorney in Arizona and DOJ-funded wiretapping, the agents promptly lost more than half of the guns they were supposed to be tracking.
Who knew about the gunwalking?
The question of who knew what and when they knew it is the great mystery of the Fast and Furious scandal.
A thoroughly-researched new expose from Fortune reporter Katherine Eban makes the claim that the ATF agents in Phoenix never intended to let guns “walk.” According to that story, ATF agents actually tried to arrest straw purchasers, but were stymied by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona.
According to Eban, this new information proves that the entire Fast and Furious scandal is just a right-wing charade. But even if Eban’s reporting is correct, her findings actually don’t make much of a difference when it comes to a) whether the DOJ supported gun walking and b) what Holder knew about it. Evidence has come to light over the course of the investigation that indicates that top officials at the Justice Department, via the U.S. Attorney’s office, knew about and encouraged gunwalking. A senior official with the DEA has also admitted that her agency was “indirectly involved” in the operation, and there is evidence that the ATF’s straw purchaser subjects were actually FBI informants.
Initially, the DOJ and the ATF denied the use of gunwalking tactics, writing in a Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Congressional investigators that the agency “makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”
By December 2011, however, the DOJ was forced to retract that letter and admit that senior officials actually did know about Fast and Furious.
What’s today’s contempt vote about?
The contempt vote relates to the internal DOJ documents from after the Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Congress. Last week, Obama asserted executive privilege over those documents, which means they are now protected from Congressional subpoena.
The focus on the post-Feb. 4. documents is evidence that House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa and other Republicans are less interested in gunwalking, and more interested in what was said within the Obama administration after news got out about the failed operation.
That makes more sense when you know that Issa has been a vocal proponent of a conspiracy theory that claims that Fast and Furious was a secret ploy by the Obama administration to force Congress into enacting tighter gun control laws.
This theory, which has been circulating around the conservative blogosphere for months, is totally crazy for a number of reasons, which TPM’s Ryan J. Reilly lays out here. Nevertheless, the NRA has started aggressively pushing this idea, and several members of Congress appear to be buying it.
Democrats have responded with their own conspiracy theory, claiming that Republicans are holding the contempt vote to stop Holder from enforcing voters rights laws.
What’s the expected outcome of the vote?
The vote is likely to be divided along party lines, although a handful of Democrats have indicated that they plan to vote Holder in contempt. The Congressional Black Caucus plans to stage a walkout during the vote, and is urging other liberal members of Congress to join them.
What happens if Congress votes to hold Holder in contempt?
Theoretically, the House could start criminal proceedings against Holder, or even arrest him, but that’s unlikely.
Instead, the case will likely go to the U.S. Attorney in D.C., for prosecution, and then wind its way through the federal appeals process — so Holder and/or his boss will likely be long gone by the time this gets in front of a judge.
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