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From ‘Fast and Furious’ to blame and consequences

Chicago Tribune –

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:


Given the toxic atmosphere in the nation’s capital, no one could know whether official Washington would provide a nonpolitical, down-the-middle accounting of the spectacularly botched Department of Justice gun-trafficking sting known as Operation Fast and Furious.

But we do have answers, delivered Wednesday by the Justice Department’s inspector general. This scathing, long-awaited report pulls no punches and spares no reputations.

Finally, we learn who shares blame for this debacle: The report names 14 federal law enforcement officials — from field agents in Arizona to top managers in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Justice Department. Among them: Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, and Gary Grindler, the No. 2 Justice Department official during Fast and Furious. One name notably not on the list — Attorney General Eric Holder. Investigators concluded that Holder had no prior knowledge of the program, a position he has long maintained.

Finally, we know, in harrowing detail, just how Fast and Furious unfolded — and unraveled. What we’ve learned is that this sting operation started blinking red almost from the moment it began in Phoenix in 2009. The report details “a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment, and management failures” that led to “a significant danger to public safety.”

The idea — expanding on a gun-trafficking intercept that started in the George W. Bush administration — was to allow guns to flow illegally into Mexico. U.S. agents were supposed to track the firearms and snag some Mexican drug cartel bigwigs. But the ATF could not keep up with the torrent of weapons flowing into Mexico from Phoenix-area gun stores once smugglers realized they were not being stopped or questioned by anyone who might object, the report suggests. Astonishingly, the program was largely run by a team of only three agents. They lost track of guns that ultimately were used in crimes on both sides of the border. Two of the guns were recovered after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in Arizona.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz doesn’t mince words. His report says Fast and Furious began “without adequate regard for the risk it posed to public safety in the United States and Mexico.” He says that risk “was immediately evident.” He says the “limitations and ineffectiveness of the surveillance” should have prompted supervisors to assess “whether they could responsibly conduct investigations … under these circumstances.”

The fallout from Horowitz’s findings started less than an hour after he released them. Kenneth Melson, the former acting head of ATF, and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein announced they were resigning. Holder said the job performances of the other officials named in the report will be reviewed. We expect more of them will follow Melson and Weinstein out the door.

We expect Holder’s job performance to be examined, too, particularly his clumsy damage-control efforts to blunt the political fallout from this scandal. Let’s remember that for months, House Republicans tried to pry records about Fast and Furious from Holder. And for months, Holder stonewalled on the release of some documents, earning himself a contempt of Congress citation. President Barack Obama backed Holder’s refusal to release the documents and invoked executive privilege — a move to protect the documents under the reasoning that their release could harm the president’s ability to obtain candid advice from his aides. Given Holder’s pattern of stonewalling, we were skeptical of that assertion.

Holder could have saved himself, his boss and the country a distracting and damaging battle if he had promptly produced all the documents Congress requested.

At ATF headquarters, Melson’s replacement, acting Director B. Todd Jones, said Wednesday that the agency has taken “corrective actions to ensure that something like this never happens again. We will make sure that this agency puts public safety first in all of our investigations.”

Those can’t just be words. If its architects and bureaucratic protectors had put public safety first, this fiasco wouldn’t have occurred.

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