If you’re a federal law enforcement official, catching drug traffickers is a good thing. Selling guns to drug traffickers is generally a bad thing. Selling guns to drug traffickers in hopes of catching other drug traffickers? There the moral calculus gets a bit murkier. But it’s safe to say you’ve gone astray when the guns start turning up at hundreds of violent crime scenes all along the U.S.-Mexico border.
That was the disturbing outcome of “Operation Fast and Furious,” an undercover program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Over 14 months, the ATF’s Phoenix office deliberately allowed thousands of weapons into the hands of suspected drug smugglers in hopes of snaring criminals higher up the chain of Mexican cartels. As the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, the program continued even as the bureau lost track of as many as 2,000 of the guns. It finally unraveled in January only after two of them turned up at the scene of an Arizona shootout that left a U.S. Border Patrol agent dead. No cartel leaders were ever arrested.
On Tuesday, the political fallout hit new levels as the Justice Department reassigned the ATF’s acting director, Kenneth Melson, and the federal prosecutor whose office oversaw the operation stepped down. Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t mention “Fast and Furious” in announcing the move, but Justice Department officials told the Wall Street Journal that was only because an internal investigation is in progress. Several other senior officials who worked on the operation from the ATF’s Phoenix office have also been reassigned in recent weeks.
Congress has gotten involved as well, with a pair of Republicans, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rep. Darrell Issa of California, leading the inquiries. Issa’s investigation revealed that Melson was regularly briefed on the operation. And on Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn criticized Holder for simply reassigning Melson instead of firing him.
Conservatives may not emerge from the “gunwalker scandal” blameless either, however. The Journal points out an irony in the ATF’s crisis of leadership:
The ATF has been without a Senate-confirmed director since 2006, with both the Bush and Obama administrations unable to overcome opposition from gun-rights groups to win approval of nominees. In November, President Obama nominated Andrew Traver, the head of the ATF's Chicago office, as permanent ATF director. The nomination stalled in the Senate after the National Rifle Association said Mr. Traver had a "demonstrated hostility" to the rights of gun owners.