Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fast and Furious, Rick Perry's chutzpah, and the politics of executive privilege

Governor Rick Perry today compared Barack Obama to Richard Nixon for using executive privilege to conceal documents in Congress' "Fast and Furious" investigation, which takes a lot of chutzpah considering Perry's record on transparency.

Said Perry to CBS' Bob Scheiffer, "If this President over the past three and a half years had made any effort to secure the border instead of running operations like Fast and Furious ..." then he trailed off into his Nixon comparison without finishing the thought. It's a bizarre framing of the issue since the Obama Administration has beefed up border security (a buildup, incidentally, that this blog has criticized) more than any time since Woodrow Wilson sent the Army there in 1916.

Grits must admit, I'm befuddled at how ineptly the Obama Administration has handled the "Fast and Furious" investigation by Congress. In politics, it's often not the act itself that gets you in trouble but the coverup. The politically smart thing to do would have been to release everything, continuously point out the bungled undercover operation was planned and launched during the Bush Administration, fire an ATF administrator or three, and put the issue as quickly as possible in the rearview mirror. The most logical reason for NOT doing that is in fact the one cited by Attorney General Eric Holder and dismissed out of hand by his partisan critics - the possibility of revealing undercover agents and sources. (Ironically, President Bush used executive privilege in order to cover up the outing of an undercover agent, while Obama is now being criticized for using it to keep operatives from being outed.)

To be clear, there's no doubt that Fast and Furious was one of the most screwed up undercover operations ever, with the ATF targeting cartel operatives who were also paid FBI informants. And it was a bipartisan screwup, spanning administrations. Once hundreds of deaths, including a US Border Patrol agent, were linked to guns lost in the operation, the boondoggle reached epic proportions.

But there's more than a little irony when folks like Rick Perry who pound on "border security" themes make such attacks. Mules caught smuggling drugs north or guns south are the lowest folks on the cartel totem pole, and arresting them barely makes a dent in the problem: For every mule arrested at a border checkpoint two more crop up to take their place. So if you want to go after the big fish - actual cartel leaders - the only way to do it is through long-term, large-scale undercover operations like Fast and Furious. And such operations must offer the cartels something to justify the risk: Guns, shipment protection, money laundering services, or what have you. Otherwise, why would they let an undercover operative near them?

A small portion of the public favors full-on drug legalization (for marijuana, now a majority). But if one believes the drug war should be prosecuted - if you believe the US government should be targeting drug cartels through law enforcement - I don't see any other way but long-term undercover ops like Fast and Furious. Inevitably, some of those will fail, just like the military has often failed to stop violence in Afghanistan despite their best efforts. But should they not try? Would it have been better if they'd remained paralyzed by fear of failure? And importantly, does anyone believe that without Fast and Furious, Mexican drug cartels would have been unable to buy guns and kill people with them? I certainly don't.

Ironically, Governor Perry and other Fast and Furious critics are adopting arguments normally bracketed to supporters of gun control. A common refrain from the NRA and gun-rights advocates - in the past including Governor Perry - is that guns don't kill people, people kill people. The same is true in the case of the Border Patrol agent and others killed using guns from Fast and Furious: The cartels are responsible for the people they kill, not the Obama Administration. Or, if Perry et. al. believe suppliers of guns are to blame, it's hard to understand why the same logic doesn't undermine their domestic stance on gun rights. Perhaps discomfort with that strange repositioning is behind the almost bizarre accusations by some conservatives that Fast and Furious was intended (by the administration and a shadowy cabal of gun control advocates) to fail, blow back, and thereby give Americans cause to enact stronger gun-control laws. That nutty idea is spreading in large part because there's been no real information released to counter it.

I for one hope for a quick about-face from the Obama Administration. Release as much information as possible to the general public without putting undercover operatives at risk, and release everything else under the usual confidentiality requirements for Congressional oversight of national security. Then, like gawkers slowing down on the highway to look at a car crash, we can all see the mess for ourselves and move on to our day jobs.


Phelps said...

I think you are under-informed on the operations. F&F is a purely Obama administration operation. It wasn't bungled -- walking the guns was an operative part of the operation. Agents who requested permission to interdict the weapons before they crossed the border were specifically refused permission.

Operation Wide Receiver was a Bush Administration operation, with the MAJOR difference that when Bush found out about it, he cancelled the operation. WR was over and dead, and F&F is a purely Holder/DOJ creation.

The other main missing element is the whistleblowers. ATF whistleblowers have been in contact with Issa and others from the beginning. The reason that there are about 160K responsive documents but the contempt filing is only about 1800 or so of them is Issa already knows what documents he wants and what they say. Frankly, I don't think he would be going this far unless those documents do contain the smoking guns (no pun intended) that point to this being a DOJ operation that was, in fact, intended to "fail", if by fail you mean directing guns to the Mexican cartels.

Anonymous said...

What has Perry done to control the border?

Prison Doc said...

Speaker Tip O'Neal famously said that all politics is local...this post seems to illustrate that all issues are political, or at least can be politicized. I know Gov.Perry is not greatly admired in these columns, but I don't see much to gain by helping camouflage F&F by wrapping it in Perry's muddy presence.

Whatever is said about F&F, there is ample evidence that the nation's top law enforcement officer has not been forthcoming (to put it courteously) and the truth should come out.

As someone on the political right, I believe that F&F was first and foremost one of this administration's self-admitted "under the radar" actions promoting gun control,whether or not the plan originated in Washington.

The country deserves the truth but I am not optimistic that it will be revealed in a timely manner.

Anonymous said...

Even if your assumptions were correct, very questionable at best, how does the specious claim that "it started under Bush" make it right to stonewall? Besides, if Obama/ Holder could really offer proof it was "Bush's fault" they would have been doing so long ago. Just like Obama was picking drone targets to kill off he was probably up to his ears running F&F. GTFO 2012!

doran said... is reporting that Rep. Issa has no evidence that the President is part of a cover-up of F&F:

'Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said there is no evidence that the White House was involved with a cover-up of the Fast and Furious scandal on “Fox News Sunday.” '

'After President Obama invoked executive privilege to withhold certain documents from Congress, House Speaker John Boehner said the move “is an admission that the White House officials were involved in decisions that mislead the Congress and covered up the truth.” Issa said there was no evidence of that.'

' “No, we don’t,” Issa said about whether they had such evidence. Pressed a second time, Issa said. “And I hope they don’t get involved. I hope this stays at Justice. And I hope that Justice cooperates, because ultimately, Justice lied to the American people on February 4th and didn’t make it right for 10 months.” '

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Phelps, I certainly could be under-informed - I don't track the feds closely and this was merely my gut reaction to the current media brouhaha. But I think if Issa already had the smoking gun he'd have used it. From the outside, it looks like he's just caught the administration in an awkward spot and is posing the question basically as "have you stopped beating your wife yet."

The thing about this happening under both Administration speaks to the fact that this is an ATF operation. It's not like Obama got into office and immediately said "let's do this." Federal agencies are staffed by folks with their own agendas that span administrations. Ground-level law enforcement tactics are not dictated from the Oval Office. Besides, how SHOULD they target those buying weapons for the cartels if not through undercover stings? Please be specific. What else, exactly are they supposed to do? Nothing? Then Perry et. al. would be right he'd ignored border security (which is in reality a BS claim).

6:36, Perry and the Lege have spent more than $600 million on border security, though IMO not in particularly effective ways.

Prison Doc, I'm not trying to "camouflage F&F by wrapping it in Perry's muddy presence." Perry's the one who injected himself into it. I saw him on TV and wrote a blog post in an immediate reaction to what he said. Otherwise, this blog covers TX criminal justice issues and I'd have no hook, which is why I've only mentioned the subject in passing in the past.

11:40 asks, "how does the specious claim that 'it started under Bush' make it right to stonewall?"

Did you read this post? I said they should release the documents. But the answer to your question is that if withholding information justified at all, it's to protect the identities of undercover operatives and sources. It takes years to develop sources in the cartels, and unless you plan to legalize drugs they'll still need those sources tomorrow. To me, there's no other logical reason for withholding the information.

Finally, I think it's ridiculous to claim it's about promoting gun control. Think about it: Wouldn't there have been concurrent gun control LEGISLATION if that was the goal? I'm a gun rights supporter, but truly, that line of thinking is paranoid/delusional, IMO, with all respect to Prison Doc and others.

doran said...

The most intriguing question raised by Grits' post is why did Bob Scheiffer go to Rick Perry for a comment? I can't imagine that anyone who followed the Republican "debates" gives a flyin' flip about what Perry thinks about anything. The man came across as a blithering idiot, and his thoughtless rambling-on to Scheiffer just reinforces that impression.

Anonymous said...

Although the Feds may have UC operatives in the cartels, none of the elements of F&F of necesssity involved UCs. EH, etal., are merely trying to cover up their own skullduggery/criminality.

doran said...

Anon 7:58.

I so envy you.

You obviously have a UC within the Obama Administration who is keeping you up to date on all the really bad, but secret, stuff the President is doing. I wish I had that kind of spy working for me.

So, can you be more specific about the President's [and the President's men and women's] criminal conduct? What is it they are doing and when are you going to disclose all that info to Rep. Issa?

Don't keep us waiting......

Phelps said...

Besides, how SHOULD they target those buying weapons for the cartels if not through undercover stings? Please be specific.

First, they should be enforcing the current laws. Virtually all of these purchases were reported as suspected straw purchases by the FLL's at the time of purchase. The ATF specifically told them to let the purchases go through. That in itself shows that our laws are already effective at stopping them.

Even beyond that, there are well established procedures at the ATF. Just the ones that publicly acknowledged include keeping the weapons under constant surveillance, putting electronic tracking devices inside the weapons themselves, and most importantly, either interdicting the weapons before they cross the border or have the full cooperation of the Mexican government.

That is the other crucial difference between WR and F&F. WR was an operation in full cooperation with the Mexican government, and F&F was not only a US only operation, but agents and even the Mexican Ambassador were specifically prohibited from revealing it to the Mexicans.

Frankly, supplying weapons to insurgents in a civil war (and let's be honest, that's what the cartels are) is an act of war. That distinction is also 100% Obama administration, and when State is involved, it is absolutely a political policy decision.

Phelps said...

Finally, I think it's ridiculous to claim it's about promoting gun control. Think about it: Wouldn't there have been concurrent gun control LEGISLATION if that was the goal? I'm a gun rights supporter, but truly, that line of thinking is paranoid/delusional, IMO, with all respect to Prison Doc and others.

Like a lot of other things, what the administration failed to do politically they have tried to do by regulation and executive fiat. First, the ATF attempted to institute new rules requiring multiple gun purchases in certain SW states (I guess they didn't want any competition with their gun running scheme, or maybe it was just to help the ATF track their own operation.)

Second, they have tried to redefine "sporting purposes" for shotgun importation to virtually ban imported shotguns.

They have reintroduced the ridiculous Clinton "Ban on Scary Looking Guns" and magazine restriction bills that have languished in Congress. They've attempted to block the re-importation of antique M1 Garands from South Korea.

Most importantly, they've claimed that we need to put restrictions like "one gun a month" and the Scary Looking Assault Weapons ban in place because... of all those guns the Mexican cartels are buying in US gun shops. That's been a consistent justification since about... oh, October 2009. When F&F started.

Anonymous said...

There's not enough effort here in Texas to combat the prison gangs that supply guns, meth, and other incidentals to the cartels that allow them to do their business on this side.

doran said...

Phelps, there are a lot of "theys" in you immediate past comment. Can you clarify: Did ATF introduce bills in Congress?

Were any of the initiatives you list attempted during the Bush Administration?

And what did you mean by "the ATF attempted to institute new rules requiring multiple gun purchases in certain SW states...."?


ckikerintulia said...

Doran, when somebody says, "Everybody knows . . .", it usually means nobody knows. And when somebody says, "They say" it usually means nobody said it.

Phelps said...

Phelps, there are a lot of "theys" in you immediate past comment. Can you clarify: Did ATF introduce bills in Congress?

Democrat politicians, in cooperation with the Administration, introduced the bills.

Were any of the initiatives you list attempted during the Bush Administration?

Not with the cooperation of the administration.

And what did you mean by "the ATF attempted to institute new rules requiring multiple gun purchases in certain SW states...."?

It's fun that you are down to playing "gotcha" games -- and failing at them.

Phillip Baker said...

From these posts 2 things are clear. 1) This program was poorly designed and executed. Well, not very idea works out, and that is not evidence of some deep conspiracy. What is with us Americans and conspiracy theories?? 2) F&F immediately was politicized by the right, thus making any real investigation almost impossible. Take out the politics, and this could have been handled long since as the major blunder it was.

What surprises me is that nobody even mentioned the elephant in the room- the sacred War on Drugs. An abject failure for 50 years now. Drugs are and always have been plentiful. Americans use the vast majority of the world's supply. We have built a very lucrative prison industry, while destroying the lives of millions of low level users. Not to mention the staggering costs and collateral damage to our civil liberties. You can count on conservatives- in lock step and like clockwork- to claim the other sides are "just throwing money " at any given problem, yet they gleefully throw billions into this sink hole. Why this irrational support of an epically failed idea?

IF the US adopted sane drug laws- decriminalizing and turning to a health/medical/education approach- the cartels would vanish. Their product would plummet in value overnight. When I was with the VA in the early 80's, the official catalogue for purchases listed one gram of cocaine at $1.75. Pharmaceutically pure stuff, mind you. On the street then- $100/gm. Like our earlier try at prohibition of alcohol, all we've managed to do is create massive profits for those willing to risk the law and supply our voracious appetite. Was the country awash in heroin dens, coke heads, etc prior to the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act in about 1933? No. Why? The vast majority of people simply do not abuse (as opposed to use) drugs or alcohol and self-corrected when it became a problem- just as they still do today. Why not pour part of those billions of wasted tax dollars into education about drug use, and rehab for those addicted, and use the remainder for something useful? Because whole agencies would have to be shut down, vast sums would no longer flow into govt coffers, and the Drug Abuse/Prison IComplex would lose incredible amounts of money and power. So on with the War on Drugs!! Intelligence be damned!

Phelps said...

It's goddamned shameful in this country when investigating a murder counts as making something "politicized by the right, thus making any real investigation almost impossible."

This operation is sitting atop hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bodies.

Full stop.

This isn't an embezzlement case. This isn't the deal where some ATF agents went too far with a wiretap. The actions of the DOJ are directly linked to hundreds of deaths in Mexico and who knows how many more.

Politicized? Really? Human life is now a political football?

Shame on you.

doran said...

Phelps, if you would write with more clarity and less ideological ferver, I would not have to ask you to clarify. I assume you want people reading this stuff to understand what it is you are talking about. So why not just say Democrats introduced the bills, and then identify those Dems?

Your comment about the ATF and multiple gun purchases totally garbled what you were trying to say. I asked you to clarify that so you would not come across as some one who can't think straight.

And your most recent post at 11:50 is totally over the top. Please, turn down your hyperbole generator and stick with facts.

Phelps said...

How many bodies do we have to wait for until it is OK to be angry?

Or do only American bodies count?

I'm pissed off about people dying, and all half the commenters care about is whether or not it makes the President look bad -- and that means that I'm the one politicizing it.

doran said...

Well, Phelps, you are justified and morally correct in being POed at the number of fatalities and collateral murders attributable to the War On Drugs. We all should share your anger, and I know many who do.

So tell us, what is your solution to the killing? What in your opinion is the quickest, most effective way to stop the murders associated with the use of drugs which are now considered to be criminal contraband?

Phelps said...

Decriminalization, no doubt.

That doesn't mean we help the murders along until we finally surrender this lost war.

Anonymous said...

F&F is not a "bungled operation". Everything in F&F happened exactly as intended. There was nothing, "rogue" nothing "unexpected", nothing "out of control". The program worked exactly as designed, except for the part about people finding out (via the death of Brian Terry) which they desperately tried to cover up.

Phelps said...

Turns out that I was exactly right

Issa does know exactly what documents he wants, because the whistleblowers have already provided him copies. All he needs now is an official copy from the DOJ itself for the rules of evidence.

Robert Langham said...

Should the Mexicans be allowed to extradite the US government employees who knowingly conspired and in fact did to ship guns into Mexico? If not, why not?

Phelps said...

Should the Mexicans be allowed to extradite the US government employees who knowingly conspired and in fact did to ship guns into Mexico? If not, why not?

Honestly, if I was Mexico, I would be considering rendition.

Robert Langham said...

Holder has killed more Mexicans than Davy Crockett.

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