The bungled gun-running sting called Operation Fast and Furious, which resulted in the death of an American border agent in 2010, has raised serious questions about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — concerns that a responsible House oversight committee could get to the bottom of. Unfortunately, that’s not what the public is getting from Representative Darrell Issa, the committee’s chair, who seems much more interested in using the investigation to score political points.
In the operation, which followed similar stings under the Bush administration, the bureau’s agents in Arizona deliberately allowed about 2,000 assault rifles into Mexico, where they were expected to fall into the hands of drug cartels. By tracing the guns, investigators hoped to build a case for prosecutions.
In retrospect, the risks were too great, and the supervision of the program too weak. The bureau lost track of many of the guns, which will now cause havoc on both sides of the border for years to come. Appropriately, the US attorney for Arizona, Dennis K. Burke, resigned and the bureau’s acting director, Kenneth E. Melson, was replaced. Now, Congress should be intent on preventing a similar debacle. Does the bureau need guidelines on how and when to conduct stings? To what extent has the lack of leadership — the bureau has not had a permanent head since 2006 — played a role in its missteps?
Instead of working to improve the bureau, however, Issa has been more interested in using his power to embarrass Attorney General Eric Holder, a target among some conservatives for his efforts to enforce voting rights laws. Holder’s Justice Department has provided thousands of documents related to Fast and Furious to the committee, but this week it voted along party lines to hold him in contempt for refusing to release others — not documents related to the botched sting itself, but rather files related to the agency’s response.
To be sure, the Justice Department didn’t do itself any favors when it initially sent an inaccurate response to the committee last year. Yet questions of which files are shared between the executive branch and Congress are usually worked out in negotiations, and Congress has always recognized that some internal executive deliberations remain private. By demanding access to those files anyway, Issa showed he was more interested in confrontation.
Congress should be intent on preventing a similar debacle.
What it all adds up to is a picture of committee that isn’t taking its responsibilities seriously, allowing real oversight to take a back seat to scandal-mongering and grandstanding. It’s been a truism in Washington ever since Watergate that sometimes the coverup is the scandal. But not always. In cases like this, it’s the scandal that’s the scandal.