October 7, 2011
Fast and Furious in a Rotten NutshellBy Ronald Kolb
The latest in a series of revelations in the ongoing saga of the Fast and Furious scandal -- where more than 2,000 rifles were knowingly and willfully allowed to be transported untracked from the United States into Mexico -- is truly stunning.
A series of damning memos from 2010 was recently obtained by CBS News, and they indicate that Attorney General Eric Holder -- as well as several senior Justice Department officials -- were aware of the deadly program.
In one of Mr. Holder's weekly briefings in July of last year from Michael Walther, the director of the National Drug Intelligence Center, Mr. Walther had written Holder that the Phoenix-based operation was "responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug trafficking cartels."
That October, Jason Weinstein, the deputy assistant attorney general of the Criminal Division, sent a colleague a memo concerning an upcoming press conference that his boss, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer (who is a longtime friend and associate of Holder), would be attending.
"It's a tricky case, given the number of guns that have walked," wrote Weinstein.
Then, in October, Breuer himself reported to Holder that "Operation Fast and Furious" would soon be ready for a "takedown."
Fox News then obtained four more weekly briefings in July and August 2010 sent from Mr. Walther to Holder discussing Fast and Furious.
The problem for Mr. Holder is that just this past May, he told Congress while under oath that he had "probably heard about Fast and Furious over the last few weeks."
And only recently, Holder stated that no one in the upper levels of his department was involved. Since the release of the damaging memos, Justice Department spokespeople have given several spurious reasons to explain Holder's statements: that he was confused during his testimony, that he thought he was being asked about another investigation, that he doesn't see every memo that passes his desk. And after calls from Congress for a special counsel, a Justice spokesman attempted to fend off that plan by saying that once Holder had learned of the operation's "questionable tactics" earlier this year, he then "promptly asked the inspector general to investigate the matter."
Cynthia A. Schnedar is the acting inspector general, and just this past month, in yet another stunning revelation, it was discovered that she had released secret audio tapes of candid conversations from last March between Hope McAllister, an ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) agent in the Phoenix office, and Andre Howard, owner of a Phoenix-area gun shop, who had been authorized by the ATF to sell weapons to known Mexican cartel members in the botched sting operation.
On one of the tapes, they discuss a third Fast and Furious rifle that was found at the scene of the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in a remote area of southern Arizona last December. It had been widely reported that only two rifles were found at the scene, but recent reports tell of a cover-up. The third rifle would have led to an FBI informant.
As for the tapes, it was discovered by congressional investigators that Schnedar had inexplicably given a copy to the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix before she had even reviewed them. The tapes then ended up being shared with the ATF office there. Both those agencies are among the many entities under investigation in the ever-expanding scandal.
So just who, one may wonder, is Acting Inspector General Cynthia Schnedar?
Until last January, she was deputy inspector general at the Justice Department, having served in that post since June of 2010. When longtime Inspector General Glenn Fine retired from his post in January of this year, Schnedar, as had been expected, was named as acting inspector general on January 29.
But, as luck would have it, two days earlier, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley went public in a letter to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich with his concerns about the killing of Brian Terry, which was immediately followed by another letter to Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson on the 31st.
On February 1, the first press reports emerged on what would become a growing scandal.
On March 10, Attorney General Eric Holder made his first of many comments about the internal investigation, telling Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison that he had "asked the Inspector General to try to get to the bottom of it."
"An investigation, an inquiry, is now underway," Holder added.
But should Cynthia Schnedar be the person to conduct the investigation?
It turns out that Ms. Schnedar has long and close ties to Mr. Holder. According to her biography on the Justice Department website, she became assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C. in 1994. Eric Holder had become the U.S. attorney in Washington the previous year, so he in effect was Schnedar's boss from 1994 until 1997, when he left to become President Clinton's deputy attorney general. Holder would become a key player in the scandalous pardons of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich and members of the Puerto Rican nationalist terrorist group known as FALN.
But during Ms. Schnedar's tenure before Holder had departed, it happened that they had ended up working a number of cases together. According to the LexisNexis website, there were at least fourteen of them, usually at the appellate level. For Holder, it was more than just "in name only"; in some of those cases, they apparently co-filed legal briefs.
In one case, they had represented the ATF. In another, they represented both the ATF and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), an agency that has now also been linked to Fast and Furious.
Whenever either Eric Holder or President Obama is pressed on Fast and Furious, both refer to the Justice Department's internal investigation that happens to be headed by Ms. Schnedar.
After Holder's comment to Senator Hutchinson in March, he was later questioned by California Representative Darrell Issa at the now-infamous hearing of May 3, when he declared that he had only recently learned of Fast and Furious. He then added defensively that "there's an investigation underway." At that same hearing, when Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz began focusing on the death of Agent Terry, Holder said, "I asked the inspector general to look into that, and I'm waiting -- awaiting that report." Chaffetz then focused on ways to find out who may have known about or authorized the disastrous program. Holder said that that is "part of what the inspector general will be looking at -- who exactly was involved, what the level of knowledge was, who should be held accountable, if in fact there were mistakes that were made."
On May 4, Holder twice told Senator Grassley that the matter had been "referred to the inspector general for inspection."
Then, at a press conference on September 7, Holder proclaimed his innocence and attacked the congressional investigation. "The notion that somehow or other this reaches into the upper levels of the Justice Department is something that, at this point, is not supported by the facts." Holder added that "it's kind of something that certain members of Congress would like to see."
Holder then noted that he "took very seriously the allegations that were raised and asked the inspector general to conduct an investigation."
President Obama has also noted the internal investigation. In his first known public comments about the scandal on March 22, he told Jorge Ramos of Univision that neither he nor Holder had authorized the operation. Obama then stated, "[S]o what he [Holder]'s done is he's assigned an I.G., an inspector general, to investigate what exactly happened[.]"
At that point, Ramos interrupted and asked, "So who authorized it?" Obama answered that, "[w]ell, we don't have all the facts. That's why the I.G. is in business. To collect the facts."
At a press conference on June 29, Obama was asked by Chilean journalist Antonieta Cadiz about Fast and Furious. "The investigation is still pending. I'm not going to comment on a current investigation...we got to find out how that happened. As soon as the investigation is completed, I think appropriate actions will be taken."
At another press conference on October 6, and just days after the damaging new memos concerning Holder were released, Obama told Jake Tapper of ABC News that he had "complete confidence" in Holder, and that "he [Holder]'s assigned an inspector general to look into exactly how this happened...and I've got complete confidence in the process to figure out who, in fact, was responsible for that decision and how it got made."
And revelations continue to emerge about Fast and Furious. Three members of the White House national security staff, including Kevin O'Reilly, knew about the operation, but it's unclear just how much they knew. Recently released e-mails between ATF Agent William Newell and O'Reilly, however, show a deeper White House knowledge than previously thought.
Newell had e-mailed O'Reilly an arrow chart showing the flow of the "ultimate destination of firearms" which led from Arizona and extended throughout Mexico. Intriguingly, O'Reilly responded, "[D]id last year's Texas effort produce a similar graphic?" This follows reports from earlier this year of weapons being run through Houston ATF.
Twelve high-ranking current and former members of the Justice Department, including Holder's confidant Lanny Breuer, have also been asked for information by the House Oversight Committee.
In March 2010 (and seven months before the recently discovered memo was sent to Holder), Breuer was asked to attend a video conference at ATF headquarters in Washington which focused on Fast and Furious. He sent Justice Department attorney Joseph Cooley instead, and at that meeting Cooley stated that running guns into Mexico was an "acceptable practice."
Just five days later, Breuer authorized wiretaps for the operation, and then later traveled to Mexico to discuss the operation with ATF personnel. Mr. Cooley has refused to comment for this article; Mr. Breuer's office also had no comment.
Last summer, three key members of the Phoenix ATF were reassigned, but they still remain on the payroll. This was also the fate of Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson. In June, numerous reports suggested that Melson would be served up as "the fall guy" by the Justice Department. However, on July 4, and without Holder's permission, he met with congressional investigators.
On July 21, Holder sent a letter to Congressman Issa and Senator Grassley demanding copies of Melson's testimony -- not only for himself, but strangely (and inappropriately) for Ms. Schnedar, who is supposedly independent of Holder.
In September, it was reported that ATF Agent John Dodson (who had serious qualms about the operation) had been ordered to purchase guns -- using taxpayer funds -- and sell weapons directly to suspected cartel members in an effort to "dirty him up."
And days after the incriminating memos involving Mr. Holder were released, B. Todd Jones, the new acting ATF director and friend of Holder since the 1990s, "reassigned" 11 more ATF personnel, adding that people need to "calm down" about the barrage of revelations.
Meanwhile, the horrors keep on growing. Two thousand grenade parts were allowed to cross the border. They could be used to construct at least 500 hand grenades.
In the fall of 2010, Mario Gonzalez, the brother of then-Chihuahua state prosecutor Patricia Gonzalez, was abducted and then eventually killed. A Fast and Furious weapon was allegedly used. Mexico's Attorney General Marisela Morales has still received no response from the Obama administration or any other U.S. official concerning the deadly operation.
In February of this year, U.S. Immigration Agent Jaime Zapata was killed south of the Texas border, and it's suspected that a Fast and Furious weapon was used. And the Los Angeles Times has reported that Fast and Furious weapons were linked to crimes in Mexico where 150 people have either been killed or injured.
The number of known violent crimes in the U.S. connected to the operation keeps increasing. By early September, the count had reached 21, including the killing of Brian Terry.
And in a separate (but strangely similar) program out of Tampa ATF dubbed "Operation Castaway," guns were run to violent gangs in Honduras. This led to a number of violent crimes in Puerto Rico and a homicide in Colombia.
As for Acting Inspector General Cynthia Schnedar, Congressman Issa told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News that Schnedar's action of releasing the tapes had betrayed the investigation. (He also noted that cooperation from the Justice Department was virtually nonexistent.)
In a recently released letter to Schnedar, Issa and Senator Grassley noted that the investigator's actions had "undermined and obstructed" their investigation (the Oversight Committee had also obtained copies of the tapes), and they demanded answers concerning her behavior.
After the first tape was made public by CBS News as a result of Schnedar's actions, her office released a highly dubious explanation: that the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix needed them for the pending prosecution of drug traffickers.
There are several questions about Ms. Schnedar that beg to be answered.
First, as she well knew, the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix was also a target of the investigation. Both the U.S. attorney and the assistant U.S. attorney have since left because of the scandal.
Second, should Ms. Schnedar have immediately recused herself from the Fast and Furious investigation because of her long and deep ties to Mr. Holder?
Third, when Ms. Schnedar began her employment as assistant U.S. attorney in Washington in 1994, was it Mr. Holder (then the U.S. attorney) who hired her?
Lastly, Federal Election Commission records show that Schnedar donated to the Democratic National Committee in 2005. Does she now think that was proper?
On a related note: I recently contacted Ms. Schnedar to ask those very questions. She angrily told me to call her office. No answers have been forthcoming from either source, including her spokesman, Jay Lerner.
And Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder are apparently leaving nothing to chance. On July 29, Obama nominated Michael Horowitz (who had previously worked at the Justice Department) to become the full-time inspector general. It turns out that in 2009, when Lanny Breuer was facing confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Horowitz had sent them a personal recommendation on Breuer's behalf.
Finally, the Fast and Furious scandal has now become a large-scale criminal investigation. It has enveloped several agencies, including the Justice Department; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona; and now even the White House.
The fact that Eric Holder will likely never appoint a special counsel makes it even more imperative that the office of the Justice Department inspector general should be above reproach.
FOLLOW US ON