Outside editorial: White House, Congress should seek compromise on Fast and Furious documents

The following editorial appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:


According to the conventional wisdom, beginning in 2006, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided to allow guns to “walk” over the U.S. border with Mexico. Federal agents let suspected straw buyers for the Mexican drug cartels buy high-powered weapons from American dealers with the idea of tracing them into the inner recesses of the cartels.

Instead, the agents lost track of nearly all of the 2,000 guns in the scheme dubbed “Fast and Furious,” and the American government became an unwitting accomplice in the inhuman violence south of the border. As a result, a U.S. Border Patrol agent is dead — Brian Terry was killed in an Arizona shootout, and two rifles traced to “Fast and Furious” were found at the scene — and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been called on the carpet by Congress.

Let’s be clear: “Gun walking” was a lousy idea when the administration of President George W. Bush tried it — and it was still a bad idea when the administration of President Barack Obama resurrected it. But a Fortune investigation published last week says the conventional wisdom is wrong: ATF agents never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

Which is all the more reason for Congress to get to the truth of the matter.

What’s needed is a thorough bipartisan investigation, not the election-year political power games being played by both the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House that serve neither the memory of Agent Terry nor the common interest in learning the truth.

As part of those games, the House, spurred initially by Republican firebrand Darrell Issa of California, voted Thursday to hold Holder in contempt for failure to turn over documents Issa wants. Issa, who once called the Obama administration “the most corrupt government in history,” clearly is playing politics.

But so is the White House, which countered by invoking “executive privilege” to shield Holder and the documents.

There is plenty of hypocrisy to go around. Republicans have done nothing to stop the gun trade with Mexican criminals. The guns lost by U.S. agents represent 3% of all guns thought to be moving from the U.S. to Mexico over the past four years. The Mexican government has said in the past that the lifting of the assault weapons ban in the U.S. coincides with the escalation of drug violence in Mexico.

So how about showing concern for the other 97 percent of trafficked weapons?

Oh, of course. That might mean tightening gun laws in the United States, and the GOP wouldn’t want to upset its patron, the National Rifle Association, which eagerly pushed for the contempt citation.

And Obama, who has been critical of government secrecy in the past, seems now to have few qualms over keeping secrets that he feels are his to keep. In 2007, Obama claimed Bush had a tendency to “hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky that’s taking place.”Yet Obama’s application of executive privilege looks just as shaky. There’s the whiff here of an administration mainly concerned with hiding details of an embarrassing operation.

In this case, instead of escalating this fight to a political nuclear war, the administration and Congress should negotiate some accommodation. Over the past year, the Justice Department has turned over about 7,600 documents related to the operation and the one run by the Bush administration. Issa wants much more, including “internal deliberations” about the operation. The administration says it won’t do that, but the administration is taking an overly broad view of what privilege should cover. In other words: There is probably a compromise here that would end this donnybrook.

Both sides should seek it.


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