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'Fast and furious' investigation fizzles in the wake of a hurricane

By Dan K. Thomasson

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee a day after he faulted the department for disregard of public safety in "Operation Fast and Furious," the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' program that allowed hundreds of guns to reach Mexican drug gangs, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON —

In a last-gasp effort to get some political mileage out of the overworked Operation Fast and Furious gun-trafficking investigation, two Republican congressmen — Rep. Darrell Issa of California and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa — chose last Monday to release their final report on the Obama administration's scandal.

The only problem: Their timing, on the eve of one of the worst storms ever to hit the Eastern Seaboard, practically assured the report would get little or no publicity. In fact, it was virtually ignored by the mainstream media. That's just as well, considering that the episode's explosive power had long dissipated in a welter of political charges and countercharges — including contempt-of-Congress against Attorney General Eric Holder — that were lost in the cacophony of the presidential campaign.

The report held no surprises. In fact, it would have fallen with a dull thud even on a slow news day. As expected, it lambasted the U.S. Justice Department for lack of cooperation with the House and Senate investigations and for ignoring the seriousness of a gun-walking operation that went completely wrong. It listed some recommendations, mostly obvious and lame.

As anyone who really cares knows, the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hatched Operation Fast and Furious to try to nail Mexican drug dealers who have been committing mayhem with battlefield weapons sold in this country. The idea was to allow straw purchases here to go unimpeded and then trace the guns to their destination south of the border. It was an ill-conceived plan for big arrests that resulted in some of the weapons bought in the United States disappearing across the Rio Grande without a trace, until one of them ended up at the scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent's shooting death.

Issa and Grassley — obviously seeing a wealth of political gold to mine — went galloping after Holder quicker than you can say "National Rifle Association." Their intent from the beginning seemed to be to smoke the attorney general and the White House rather than to get at the root causes of the gun-trafficking problems, including Congress' own major culpability in the whole mess. That isn't to deny the White House role in failing to curtail the illegal flow of firearms through this country. Lip service is about all the president has paid to the problem, for obvious political reasons.

For years, lawmakers fearful of the gun lobby's political clout have denied ATF the wherewithal to deal with the increasingly violent gun scene its mandate requires. The understaffed agency has long been a patsy that congressional NRA toadies have pointed to anytime there is a perceived threat to the Second Amendment. It has been denied ample funds and strong central leadership.

Almost 10 years ago, Congress responded to NRA demands and made the ATF directorship subject to Senate confirmation. Since then, the gun lobby has been able under Senate rules not only to thwart the approval of a permanent director but to prevent a nominee from being considered in committee. Neither the Obama White House nor the past administration has done anything to alleviate this travesty, leaving ATF to operate under a series of ill-equipped acting chiefs and depriving it of long-range planning. It is always in a state of flux. The job's current occupant also is the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, a situation clearly not conducive to good management.

The new report accuses the Holder regime of failure to cooperate with Congress or to get to the bottom of the matter in order to protect the department's top political appointees. It names department officials who Issa and Grassley allege are culpable of lax oversight and of covering up the affair — and who they say should be held accountable.

Chances are slim that anything substantial will come out of the Fast and Furious debacle. Both sides in this case have made the mistake of not using it to address an increasingly serious problem.

Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.

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