Fast and … loose?

No, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives did NOT “let guns walk into Mexico.” Fortune magazine does the investigation and finds no scandal save the long-running scandal of weak laws that enable gun trafficking.

Just in time for the Darrell Issa/NRA attempt to cite the Attorney General for Contempt of Congress, Katherine Eban of Fortune reports on what actually happened in the “Fast and Furious” case. Answer: not much. ATF tried to make cases against a group of gun-runners, but couldn’t get prosecutors interested. One of the suspects bought the gun later used to murder a Border Patrol agent. There was no deliberate attempt to let guns “walk” into Mexico, merely an illustration of the weakness of our current laws against gun trafficking.

In other words, as an IRS agent involved in the task force says:

Republican senators are whipping up the country into a psychotic frenzy with these reports that are patently false.

Hmmm … Republicans … psychotic frenzy … false reports. Does sound sorta familiar, doesn’t it?

And the top leadership of the Justice Department, showing a profile in cowardice, is not backing up its people, while most of the press is content to report the “he said-she said” without ever examining the underlying facts.

I admit to having wrongly taken the case at what seemed to be its face value: that the ATF tried to make cases against the gun suppliers for the Mexican drug organizations by allowing guns to move into Mexico, and carelessly let some of the guns get away. Too bad, I thought, but nothing more than a fairly routine drug sell-and-bust applied to the gun trade. And no surprise that the ATF fouled up, as it’s notoriously not the best-managed agency in the government, which is of course just what the NRA and its Congressional servants want. But apparently even that benign interpretation wasn’t benign enough to fit the facts.

As to the merits of the contempt citation, I don’t know whether Eric Holder is right to say that the documents Darrell Issa is demanding would compromise ongoing investigations. What I do know is that the contrast with the handling of Alberto Gonzales in the U.S. Attorney firings is extreme. If one side continues to practice Olympic-rules boxing while the other does Extreme Fighting, guess who’s likely to win?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

34 thoughts on “Fast and … loose?”

  1. Direct quote from ATF agent John Dodson: “With the number of guns we let walk, we’ll never know how many people were killed, raped, robbed…” “There is nothing we can do to round up those guns. They are gone.” Right, nobody just let the guns get into Mexico. Forty of them just magically happened to wind up in a house of Sinaloa cartel enforcer, Jose Antonio Torres Marrufo.,0,6431788.story

    1. Right. Did you read the piece to see why Dodson is not a terribly credible source of information? Or that the LA Times piece you sight quotes emails that it says were a response to the alleged disagreement that, in fact, had nothing to do with the case at all?

      If there is a villain here according to the Forbes piece, it’s the US Attorney’s office that refused to allow the ATF to arrest the gun trafficker in question. However, that mat simply be the result of the fact that Arizona gun laws are so loose that despite knowing exactly what was going on, no one had enough proof to prosecute.

    1. It will be fun to watch him explain why, for the very first time in recorded history, he’s concerned about the provenance of a firearm that ended up being used to kill someone, and why the supplier of the gun is responsible for what the receiver did with it.

        1. Sometimes Brett responds to an accusation of cowardice, which is what I take Warren’s post to be. Sometimes Brett doesn’t respond, and slinks away. My guess is that he won’t respond this time. We shall see.

      1. That would be because the supplier of the gun knew the receiver was a criminal, was setting out to make sure criminals were supplied guns. As opposed, you know, to somebody selling guns to people they have reason to believe aren’t criminals, in the knowledge that some of them may eventually reach criminals. The difference between regrettably accepting a downside, and going straight to the downside.

        I am seriously having doubts about the utility of commenting here; As the election approaches, this site is getting so hackish even my low tastes are offended. Should the ACA get struck down tomorrow I’m fully expecting some of you to stroke out. Maybe I’ll be back after the election, when tempers have cooled.

        1. Great, we look forward to having our debate skills sharpened by more specious argumentation!

        2. Noooo! Please don’t go! You’re the funniest commenter here since Malcolmtent. (how I miss him!)

          Pretending to conflate ATF agents using surveillance to gather evidence with them being “the supplier of the gun”, and in the next sentence accusing the rest of the site of getting offensively hackish — priceless!

          You should take the time to go and actually read the linked article. I’ll quote you the short version.

          No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking, so agents must build cases using a patchwork of often toothless laws.

          Customers can legally buy as many weapons as they want in Arizona as long as they’re 18 or older and pass a criminal background check. There are no waiting periods and no need for permits, and buyers are allowed to resell the guns.“.

          Voth and his agents began investigating a group of buyers, some not even old enough to buy beer, whose members were plunking down as much as $20,000 in cash to purchase up to 20 semiautomatics at a time, and then delivering the weapons to others.

          Their greatest difficulty by far, however, was convincing prosecutors that they had sufficient grounds to seize guns and arrest straw purchasers. By June 2010 the agents had sent the U.S. Attorney’s office a list of 31 suspects they wanted to arrest, with 46 pages outlining their illegal acts. But for the next seven months prosecutors did not indict a single suspect.

          On Dec. 14, 2010, a tragic event rewrote the narrative of the investigation. In a remote stretch of Peck Canyon, Ariz., Mexican bandits attacked an elite U.S. Border Patrol unit and killed an agent named Brian Terry. The attackers fled, leaving behind two semiautomatic rifles. A trace of the guns’ serial numbers revealed that the weapons had been purchased 11 months earlier at a Phoenix-area gun store by a Fast and Furious suspect.

          “Irony abounds when it comes to the Fast and Furious scandal. But the ultimate irony is this: Republicans who support the National Rifle Association and its attempts to weaken gun laws are lambasting ATF agents for not seizing enough weapons—ones that, in this case, prosecutors deemed to be legal.”

          Yep, sums it right up!

        3. That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. If I understand the Fortune article I link to below correctly, there was only one such occasion where ATF put a UC between a gun dealer and the person who was buying guns on behalf of Mexican criminals. That was a rogue operation by Dodson, who somehow ended up with neither the guns nor the suspect but went on vacation anyway. What is quite clear is that the reason we got the “downside” of huge numbers of guns being sent into Mexico wasn’t because of anything the ATF did or failed to do but rather because of the American gun culture and the power of the gun lobby and the Republican Party. If there blood on anybody’s hand, it’s on the gun dealers along the border who are uncaring, totally mercenary, totally evil merchants of death and conservatives who have used tremendous political pressure to hobble the ATF and make sure that the flow of guns to criminals continues unrestrained.

          1. Agreed, Mitch. But try convincing a monomaniacal NRA supporter of that. They cite all manner of dubious statistics to paper over what is glaringly obvious: more guns means more people will be shot. Period.

  2. Republican senators are whipping up the country into a psychotic frenzy with these reports that are patently false.

    Unfortunately for the Republican senators the only ones being whipped are those special curs hyper-tuned to this particular dog whistle.
    For most of the nation this is a BF yawn. As well it should be. Manufactured outrages have lost their power to command.
    Pavlov’s dogs are exhausted.
    You’ll get no knee-jerks for free anymore.
    The hot buttons have all gone cold.

    This is the most boring presidential cycle ever. And nothing can be done to raise interest.
    Barack is a namby pamby neoliberal pawn who told us in all seriousness that sea levels will start to subside…
    And Mitt’s a bologna sandwich on white bread…
    For the few Americans who are still paying attention, the Senate Banking Committee’s handling of “Jamie” told us all we needed to know:
    Government for the rich, by the rich, of the rich. Complete and total domination with Scalia scolding everyone from the referee’s booth…

    The nation is a lost cause…
    We have gone from rage to counter-rage to despair to counter-despair to WGAF.
    Is it football season yet dear?
    Go 49ers!

    1. Do you have a cite for Barack saying sea levels will start to subside?
      That’s news to me.

      1. People, both of the left and of the right, who were always regretfully going to be disappointed in Obama – who before he even secured the nomination were eagerly anticipating the coming opportunities to mournfully deliver monologs detailing Obama’s failings – have for almost four years been pointing to his Denver convention speech, specifically to the passage in which he says that the 2008 election could be the point where we get our act together and enact policies to get global warming under control, and pretending that Obama was claiming that the Power Of His Sheer Awesomeness Would Sway The Tides.

        1. Well, looking back at the 2008 campaign like that, it was hubris to think the tide was going to change. I did think the Rs would have some chagrin after the Bush years, and come back to reality and some cooperation with Ds. And I was wrong.

          But I still want to know why koreyel says “Obama claims sea level will start to subside”.

          1. Listened to it.

            Obama did not say sea level will subside, or go down.
            Said “when the rise of the ocean began to slow”.
            Also, it was a predictive statement, predicated on the notion that Rs would not be total shitty bastards.
            Which I admit was an error.

            Man up, admit that your point about sea level is wrong too.

          2. Indeed, as I indicatedabove , it’s the section of his big convention speech where he says that the 2008 election could be the time when the country begins to address, in order: people lacking access to health care; people lacking jobs; the need to start slowing global warming; ending the war in Iraq; and our nation’s global image.

            Of these five, in order, he did #1 (at least until the Supreme Court steps in tomorrow); he made some effort on #2 (too little, perhaps, but possibly about as much as he could); a bill for #3 passed the House and was filibustered, not that it was a wonderful bill; he did #4; and arguably he did a bit towards #5 by the simple expedient of not being George Dubya.

          3. Pavlov’s dogs are exhausted.

            Maybe I was wrong. Maybe there is some saliva “left” in the glands.

            My post was about the general lack of enthusiasm for either candidate.
            As well as a lack of enthusiasm for the upcoming election.
            We are four months out and no matter what the media (they need a horse race) and the parties do (they want you to donate) it is a big yawn.

            The ultra right has spent its quota of rage, and can’t hit the gas for Romney.
            The ultra left has a hard time getting enthusiastic for a President who is, among many things, giving “NASA” money to billionaires to privatize space.
            (Do taxpayers get some stock in those companies too? Don’t even ask peon.)

            So there is very little pull from the sides.
            When the sides don’t swirl the pot don’t stir.

            To wit: What about the undecideds in the middle?
            They are chewing their cud and waiting for football season.
            Half of them don’t even know who the Vice President is…
            Most of them (rightly) believe that no one in DC gives a shit about them.

            The country is dead in water. All time lows across the board. Does anybody feel enthusiastic about its future? With a straight face? Can anybody possibly imagine Obama giving the same sort of speech now? No. Hope is dead. Shit we’re just trying to hold on and pay for the groceries. And we have a choice between a “Grand Bargain” and the “Ryan Plan”? And why do I have this gut feeling the Bush cuts on the rich are now permanent?

            All that being said, was being said, from my reading the social dynamics of the country.
            I could be wrong, but show me.

            As for this:

            Obama did not say sea level will subside, or go down.
            Said “when the rise of the ocean began to slow”.

            I stand corrected.

            He said his election would mark the moment when the rate of change of the rise of the ocean would “bend” downwards. No matter how you parse it, it was hyperbole. And I remember the moment he said it thinking: Jesus, does this guy think he is Jesus? If so, the gospel of compromise didn’t work…

          4. Koreyel,
            I admit to being optimistic, and believing in the ‘yes we can’ spirit. Perhaps we are well and truly screwed. I thought we had a chance to bury bush at 2004 too.

            So I don’t feel quite a cynical as you, while still understanding it.
            Do you remember the SNL dating service skits “Lowered Expectation” – that seems to be where we are today, and I’ll vote for as little backsliding as I can.

          5. MobiusKlein…

            I may not be as cynical as you imagine.

            A choice between the lesser of two evils is still a vitally important choice. And one should be happy and eager to engage that choice.
            In no way can I imagine squandering my vote on an “ideal” third party candidate (not that one even exists), or staying home and not voting.
            So being a pragmatic schmo, I support Obama and donate to his campaign.

            Again I am just reading the country’s “vital” signs.
            Sometimes I get these things dead on, sometimes I am dead wrong.
            The title of Kleiman’s post was “fast and … loose” and the spirit of my original post was just that: a stream-of-conscious idea-dump on the state of the country.

          6. koreyel: “My post was about the general lack of enthusiasm for either candidate.”

            That, honestly, does not bother me at all. In general, I’d prefer less enthusiasm and more reasoned, critical evaluation, not just of presidential candidates, but of political movements in general.

            The British, quite famously, kicked out Winston Churchill right after WW II, right after he had all but assured the continued survival of their nation. It wasn’t that they were unappreciative of his efforts, but they believed that, with the war over, they now needed to focus on rebuilding the nation, and they replaced Churchill (Conservatives) with Attlee (Labour) to accomplish that.

            I think I’ve said before that the primary reason (with rare exceptions) I vote for any given candidate is their party membership, and the political platform of that party. I did not vote for Obama in 2008 because he inspired me. I voted for Obama because he was a Democrat, and McCain was a Republican, and I saw the Democrat’s platform as superior and will consider seeing it superior until and unless Republicans stop throwing the poor and weak under the bus. This has not changed this year. I don’t care much about how responsible or irresponsible Mitt Romney was at Bain. I won’t vote for him because he’ll be an enabler for the Republican platform, which, if anything, has grown alarmingly extremist during the past 3.5 years.

            If anything, I find the focus on individual candidates to not be good for our democracy. It exists, I think, because even political narratives require protagonists and antagonists, and because the media and political advertising want to tell stories, stories about politics. But in the end, I think that this is harmful, because it is putting the debate of the ephemeral characteristics of two men (who will stop having any political say 4-8 years from now) over the debate of policy.

  3. “Obama claims sea level will start to subside”.—
    This is simply right-wing music- It sounds good to their ears, no matter if there is any truth to it at all.

    1. You may have noticed that koreyel’s comment was not coming from a right-wing viewpoint. I believe the name given to that viewpoint by its detractors is “firebagger“.

  4. Here is a link (via Kevin Drum) to an article in Fortune with a totally different perspective.

    Kevin Drum says this is the gist of the article: “F&F wasn’t a gun walking operation. Nobody deliberately allowed guns to be shipped to Mexican drug lords. Nobody stupidly lost track of the guns. It just didn’t happen…The real story, according to Eban, is about weak laws, incompetent prosecutors, juvenile bickering within the ATF’s Phoenix division, a CBS reporter who basically got played, and a craven bunch of managers and politicians who decided to throw the operation under the bus because it was too politically risky to just tell the truth.”

    Link to Kevin Drum’s article and analysis:

    Link to Fortune article:

    My reading of the article differs slightly from Drum’s in that I understood Eban to say that there was indeed a deliberate “gun walking” operation but it was a totally unauthorized operation by ATF Agent John Dodson and two of his partners that on only a single occasion sold guns knowing they would go into Mexico for use by criminals and then made no effort to prosecute anybody.

    If I understand the timeline correctly, Dodson apparently went on vacation instead of either filing his case or trying to recover the guns before they got across the border.

  5. “I admit to having wrongly taken the case at what seemed to be its face value…”

    I always assumed that this “scandal” was a crock of shit because of the name it was given. A piece of PR if I ever heard one. I mean, I’m not the audience for the movies, either.

      1. Yes… you know, I thought it was such a crock that I barely read the Forbes article either. Although to be clear the author calls it a “case”, not an “operation”.

        Still I wonder whether this case would have gotten the attention it did with a more mundane moniker.

  6. That Fortune story suggests the conventional media narrative just isn’t true.

    This Washington Post story — — isn’t quite so clear:

    “‘It was the only way to dismantle an entire firearms-trafficking ring and stop the thousands of guns flowing to Mexico, said William D. Newell, a veteran federal agent who spent five years as the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.

    In his first public interview about the operation, Newell said he believed that he and his agents were working the largest gun-trafficking case of their careers and finally had a window into Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel. To identify cartel members, ATF agents, beginning in 2009, watched as about 2,000 weapons purchased at Phoenix gun stores hit the streets; their goal was to trace them to the cartel.”

    And there’s this:

    “Newell’s office developed a plan: To identify the drug networks, his agents would track — but not arrest — straw buyers. The agents could follow them and their associates, wiretap conversations, and possibly charge more senior cartel members with serious crimes such as conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering.”

    Though Newell also goes on to blame the U.S. attorney, who’s since resigned.

    Meanwhile, there’s this gem from the end of the Fortune piece:

    “Fast and Furious’ top suspects—Sinaloa Cartel operatives and Mexican nationals who were providing the money, ordering the guns, and directing the recruitment of the straw purchasers—turned out to be FBI informants who were receiving money from the bureau. That came as news to the ATF agents in Group VII.”

    It’s political theater, for sure, but it also reveals a seven-layer flustercluck by the U.S. Department of Justice.

    1. I don’t think these perspectives are all that different. I did not understand Newell to be saying anything different from the Fortune article. Specifically, I did not understand him to say that there was ever an ATF operation to permit straw purchases and for the guns to be delivered to the drug cartels unmolested. Rather, I understood him to be saying that because the US attorneys and Main Justice had prevented ATF from prosecuting the straw purchasers and seizing the weapons before they could be delivered to the drug cartels, then an operation designed to learn more about where and to whom the guns were going was the best alternative open to ATF.

      In other words, the ATF didn’t want the guns to “walk” to Mexico—as I see it, that’s what the NRA, conservatives and gun dealers who are getting rich on drug money wanted. But if the guns were going to be “walked” anyway (My note: Under the protection of the NRA and the Republican Party) then they might as well get a better idea of the structure of the Mexican drug networks, see how the money was being washed and moved and maybe be able to make some money laundering/asset forfeiture cases.

  7. Essentially, Fortune said the “whistleblower” was lying, but it’s like Fortune is stuck in a time warp …

    Internally, over the course of the next eight months, the Justice Department identified 140,000 pages of documents and communications responsive to the Committee’s subpoena. Yet,the Department handed over only 7,600 of these pages. Through a series of accommodations and in recognition of certain Executive Branch and law enforcement prerogatives, the Committee prioritized key documents the Department needed to produce to avoid contempt proceedings. These key documents would help the Committee understand how and why the Justice Department moved from denying whistleblower allegations to understanding they were true; the identities of officials who attempted to retaliate against whistleblowers; the reactions of senior Department officials when confronted with evidence of gunwalking during Fast and Furious,including whether they were surprised or already aware of the use of this reckless tactic, and; whether senior Department officials are being held to the same standard as lower-level employees who have been blamed for Fast and Furious by their politically-appointed bosses in Washington.

    Fortune sounds exactly like the DOJ position prior to withdrawing their Feb ’11 letter to Issa last November.

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