Operation Fast and Furious: A guide to the botched gun-trafficking sting

The Week

How did a flubbed federal law enforcement operation named after a cheesy movie become a high-stakes Washington showdown? Read on

If you'd never heard of Operation Fast and Furious until last week, says David Graham at The Atlantic, "you probably don't read much conservative media" or watch Fox News. The failed 2009-2011 "gunwalking" operation has been a hot topic of conversation on the Right since the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010, but the mainstream media has largely ignored the issue. Of course, that changed last week when President Obama asserted executive privilege to shield some Fast and Furious documents sought by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and Issa's committee voted along party lines to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress. But what is Operation Fast and Furious, exactly? Here's what you should know:

Briefly, what's the story?
Fast and Furious was a botched Mexican gunrunning sting conducted from 2009 to 2011 by the Phoenix branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The feds' plan was to let intermediaries to Mexican drug cartels buy some 2,000 automatic weapons and other firearms from Arizona dealers; supposedly, the feds would then trace the guns to smugglers and cartel leaders and use this information to stanch the flow of guns to Mexico and reduce the power of the cartels. Instead, ATF lost track of about 1,700 of the guns, and two were later found at the site of the shootout on the Arizona-Mexico border in which a Mexican gang killed Brian Terry. The FBI ballistics test were inconclusive, but one of the "Fast and Furious" guns might well have been used to kill Terry.

SEE MORE: The 'Fast and Furious' scandal: Is Obama trying to cover it up?

What has happened since Terry's death?
In January 2011, ATF shut down the operation, Republicans took control of the House, and Issa took the gavel of the oversight committee. The next month, as details about the operation leaked out, Holder asked the DOJ inspector general to open an investigation. The Justice Department also wrote a letter to Congress that February in which it denied ever willfully permitting guns to fall into Mexican cartels' hands. In December 2011, the Justice Department retracted that letter, after documents and whistleblowers proved that the assertion was false. (The DOJ says it didn't know the details when it issued the letter; Republicans say DOJ officials were lying to cover up the botched operation.) Meanwhile, Issa, who's long pursued an investigation of his own, has subpoenaed tens of thousands of documents. The Justice Department has turned over about 7,600, including documents that show the U.S. Attorney in Phoenix and the acting head of the ATF had been briefed on the operation. Both resigned in August 2011. So far, Holder has testified 11 times before Congress on the operation.

Why are Republicans holding Holder in contempt?
Because he won't turn over certain documents. The documents that "Issa wants most are internal communications from February 4, 2011," the date of the since-retracted letter to Congress, says Matthew DeLuca at The Daily Beast. Fast and Furious was over by then, and it seems likely, says DeLuca, that Issa is less interested in what happened with the guns, than in "what happened inside Holder's house once they discovered that news of the failed operation had gotten out."

SEE MORE: The 'Obama spending binge': Fact or fiction?

Where does Obama come in?
We're in the inevitable "what did he know and when did he know it" phase of the investigation, says Jay Bookman at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some Republicans claim that Obama's invocation of executive privilege implicates him. And yet, Issa said Sunday that for now, he has no proof of White House involvement.

Was Operation Fast and Furious named after the popular movie franchise?
Yes, according to The Washington Post and Wikipedia, which notes that "some of the suspects under investigation operated out of an auto repair store and street raced," like the characters in the 2001 film The Fast and the Furious and its various sequels.

SEE MORE: The GOP's crackdown on Eric Holder: Racist?

Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlantic, Daily Beast, Hullabaloo, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, New York Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Wikipedia

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