The Truth about Fortune Magazine's 'The Truth about the Fast and Furious Scandal'
Early in the morning on June 27, Fortune Magazine published online a lengthy article called "The Truth about the Fast and Furious Scandal."
Fortune's timing was not fortuitous. That evening, the House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to produce documents requested by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. About a hundred Democrats walked out before the vote, and the talking points at their press conference came from the article. Leftist websites jumped on the story. It rapidly became the new liberal narrative on the scandal. Some moderate Republicans have been impressed.
The article is worth a closer look. It contains some new evidence that open-minded readers will find plausible. At the same time, its omissions and distortions reveal the real agenda of the magazine as clearly as the timing of the article's publication.
The piece, Fortune claims, is the result of a six-month investigation in which 39 individuals were interviewed and over 2,000 documents examined. It purports to be the backstory, missing from accounts in the media so far.
The writer, Katherine Eban, offers essentially two arguments:
1) that David Voth, the director of the office that ran Fast and Furious, Group VII of the AFT's Phoenix field division, made serious efforts to bring charges against straw buyers but was thwarted by the U.S. Attorney's Office, which repeatedly refused to issue warrants.
2) that the scandal was concocted by disgruntled agents who actually had other grievances against Voth. The charges were publicized by "right-wing bloggers" and then eagerly embraced by Republicans for partisan reasons.
To begin with the second story, the piece cleverly reverses the traditional stereotype of the nerdy, by-the-book whistle-blower chafing under a rogue supervisor.
Voth, obviously Eban's primary source, is depicted as a hardworking, straight-shooting ex-Marine, "strapping and sandy-haired." His leading critic, John Dodson, who broke the story on CBS, is represented as obnoxious and sarcastic, "'an asshole sometimes,'" according to a former partner. After Voth arrived in Arizona in December 2009, his seven-member team soon split into two factions: the "Renegades," headed by Dodson, and the "Sunshine Bears," under Voth. Team Voth got its moniker from his ironic nickname for the dour lead investigator Hope MacAllister.
Tensions came to a head in March 2010 over an authorization to wiretap a suspect. The Renegades either didn't want weekend slots or didn't want to be assigned to the wire at all. They bombarded Voth with e-mails. In response, Voth issued what would subsequently become infamous as the "schism" e-mail. One line became particularly notorious: "If you don't think this is fun, you're in the wrong line of work." Reading the entire e-mail, it's clear that it was the wiretap project that Voth was referring to, not a plan to walk guns.
Most of Eban's attempts to discredit the dissidents are at best a stretch: Dodson wore flip-flops to work, Lee Casa wouldn't turn off the "Godzilla" sound effect on his computer, which roared when he received an e-mail, Larry Alt produced a satiric memo about the control-freak MacAllister.
But a couple of charges against Dodson are less frivolous. As evidence that his disagreement with Voth was not about gun-walking, Eban claims that in June 2010, Dodson went undercover in a project he himself initiated and Voth opposed, purchasing 6 AK Draco pistols with ATF funds and then selling them to a suspected gun-trafficker. But he then went on vacation without interdicting the weapons. They were never recovered and the trafficker never charged.
Another point Eban makes is that there is no documentary evidence regarding the dissatisfaction of the Renegades with the operation until after the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry on December 14, 2010. Dodson and the others sent plenty of e-mails to Voth. If they had questioned the premise of Fast and Furious, they would undoubtedly have produced these, rather than the "schism" e-mail.
The reason Voth sought a wiretap was his frustration at the U.S. Attorney's Office. Here Eban's chronology is confusing. We are told that lists of individuals for whom indictments were sought were sent to the USAO "by January 2010," "by June 2010," and "by the end of July 2010, when the Fast and Furious investigation was largely complete." In the first and third cases, Eban says that 20 names were submitted, and in the second 31, though with only 46 pages of documentation. In any event, the USAO was reluctant to issue warrants until after the murder of Terry, when arrests were finally made.
Some of the rejections seem pretty egregious. Voth claims he was denied indictments for one buyer on food stamps who had bought $300,000 worth of firearms over six months and another, unemployed, who had paid $10,000 for a 50-caliber sniper rifle. He began taking cases to the state's AG office instead of federal prosecutors. For the USAO, he believed, it simply was not rewarding bringing charges against straw buyers, who had no criminal records and faced minimal penalties.
A reader vaguely familiar with F&F might go along with Eban's narrative up to this point, but then he or she would run across this sentence: "New facts are still coming to light -- and will likely continue to do so with the Justice Department inspector general's report expected in coming months." Really? One would expect that a writer genuinely interested in "new facts" would be dying to see some of the 75,000-80,000 documents that Eric Holder has withheld from Congress. (At issue in the contempt vote were only 1,300 of these.) There was a reason why the AG became the first sitting Cabinet officer to be cited for contempt of Congress, and there was a reason why seventeen Democrats joined the GOP in the lopsided vote. Instead, Eban hopes that the Justice Department, which has refused to bring charges against its chief, will provide a report that will be something other than a whitewash.
Does Eban really not understand why poor Eric Holder "is in the cross-hairs of Congress" or why he has been "pummeled" by conservatives? Does she imagine that disgruntled agents -- resentful over being assigned to monitor a wiretap over the weekend -- generated all these documents themselves?
Even if the dissident agents went along with the project until the death of Terry, they at least had the courage to come forward afterward. And if they did not send memos, agents have testified under oath that they repeatedly questioned the program and that supervisors dismissed their concerns.
Whistle-blowers came from outside Group VII as well. Eban is happy to quote Pete Forcelli, the supervisor of another ATF Phoenix field division, when he blasts the assistant U.S. attorney, but not when he says, under oath, "ATF agents assigned to the Phoenix Field Division, with the concurrence of their local chain of command, 'walked' guns. ATF agents allowed weapons to be provided to individuals whom they knew would traffic them to members of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). They did so by failing to lawfully interdict weapons that they knew were going to be delivered to members of DTOs, and they did so by encouraging federal firearms licensees to continue selling weapons that were destined for delivery to members of the DTOs where no interdiction efforts were planned."
Where did Forcelli get this idea? Reading right-wing blogs? Forcelli, like Dodson and others, protested the gun-walking to his superiors, and his objections were dismissed. One supervisor told him ruefully, "Pete, if you or I were running this case, it wouldn't be run this way."
For attentive readers, other things will have leapt out.
Hope MacAllister refused to talk to Eban. Why? The reporter was vindicating her team; one would think MacAllister would be happy to help out. Maybe Sunshine Bear's silence has something to do with her role in the real Fast and Furious.
The straw buyers were being recruited and paid by a cartel operative named Manuel Fabian Celis-Acosta. In May 2010, authorities stopped him in Lukeville, AZ with 74 rounds of ammo concealed in a spare tire, 12 cell phones in his dash, and a ledger. MacAllister was contacted. Celis-Acosta convinced her he was working for a close associate of Chapo Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel, and would cooperate with the ATF. She wrote her name and number on a $10 bill, gave it to him, and authorized his release. Of course, once in Mexico, he disappeared. Celis-Acosta didn't even have the decency to mail back the ten bucks.
This incident reveals the real truth about Fast and Furious. Group VII's agents were told that by letting the small fry go, the Bureau would be led to the big fish. But how were they going to reel them in? Not only was the Mexican government left in the dark about the operation, but ATF's own agents south of the border were not informed. When they found out, the agents were incensed. "These guns went to ruthless criminals," said Carlos Canino, ATF attaché in Mexico, in testimony before Congress. "I would like to inform this committee and the American public that I believe what happened here was inexcusable - and we in Mexico had no part of it."
Another reader of right-wing blogs? Or was Canino motivated by a personal grievance against Voth?
Chapo Guzmán is going to be a little harder to take down than David Koresh. There are many courageous and hardworking agents at ATF, but the scandal has again led to questions about the agency's raison d'être. Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms are all legal. Laws have been passed to limit their distribution, but can't these be entrusted to the agencies that enforce our other laws? There will be future Jerry Sanduskys, Timothy Learys, and Napsters, but we don't have a Bureau of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll.
The fact is, of course, that there was no way for F&F to stop the drug cartels merely by identifying weapons found at crime scenes in Mexico as guns originally bought by their straw purchasers. Yet Dodson describes his supervisors as "giddy" with delight when such traces were made.
Is it any surprise that critics attribute other motives to the individuals who conceived this program?
Hope MacAllister didn't cooperate with Eban, but another woman involved in F&F did. "Republican senators are whipping up the country into a psychotic frenzy," complained Linda Wallace. "A self-proclaimed gun-rights supporter," Wallace is identified as "a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit." "What in the world does the IRS have to do with Fast and Furious?" an innocent reader might wonder. After all, Eban paints a picture of an overworked, understaffed office responsible for a dozen other projects besides F&F. When Voth arrived in December 2009 to head Group VII, he found that the office had not even been funded. "The group had little equipment and no long guns, electronic devices, or binoculars, forcing Voth to scrounge for supplies."
What Eban doesn't bother telling the reader is that the IRS was in Phoenix to advise gun shop owners on the proper way to report on their taxes the huge sums of money forked over by the straw purchasers. Even more important, she does not inform readers that the owners were unhappy with what they were being asked to do by the ATF. If Dodson did not send e-mails questioning F&F, some of the gun dealers did.
One wrote to Voth on June 17, 2010. He had just seen a disturbing report on Fox News about firearms crossing the border, and wanted to be assured "that the guns are not getting south or in wrong hands. I know it is an ongoing investigation so there is limited information you can share with me. But as I said in our meeting, I want to help ATF with its investigation but not at the risk of agents [sic] safety because I have some very close friends that are U.S. Border Patrol agents in southern AZ... I guess I am looking for a bit of reassurance..."
Voth was happy to provide it. Go right ahead and sell to the straw purchasers, he told the dealer.
Several dealers wrote a joint e-mail asking for "a letter of understanding to alleviate concerns." They did not want to get into trouble down the road for "selling to bad guys."
The ATF promptly sent one.
When a particularly active buyer, Uriel Patino, wanted 20 AK-47-type weapons from another gun store owner who had only four in stock, the reluctant owner asked if he should provide the additional sixteen. Sure, said Voth.
When still another gun shop owner sold the weapons that would eventually be found at the scene of Terry's murder, he immediately faxed the information to Group VII. But it was the MLK Day weekend, and no one stopped by the office for three days. Straw buyers can transfer guns in a matter of minutes. One would think it would be a priority to check for faxes and voice-mails several times a day wherever gun shops were open if one really intended to interdict weapons.
Like mortgage lenders until the late '90s, the vast majority of gun-owners are responsible individuals. Only when prodded or coerced by the government, or when the government claims to assume all the risks, do they act irresponsibly.
As for the U.S. Attorney's Office, the article's charges are valid. Seeking 20 indictments ten months after the investigation opened seems too little far too late, especially as Phoenix gun shop owners had given Group VII the names of 40 suspected straw purchasers by the end of 2009.
But the prosecutors did indeed fail repeatedly to issue indictments, sometimes in cases even more egregious than the ones the reporter mentions.
Particularly obstructive was U.S. Assistant Attorney Emory Hurley.
But wait a minute -- isn't the USAO a part of Eric Holder's Justice Department? Isn't it curious that the AG of gun-clinging Arizona, the horrid state that persecutes "undocumented workers" and is duly vilified by Eban, would be more sympathetic to efforts to prosecute gun-runners than the USAO?
Hurley's boss was U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke, appointed by Barack Obama in September 2009, just before F&F was launched. Burke is from Chicago, and he worked closely with Rahm Emmanuel to get Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons in 1994. Why would a staunch gun-control advocate not press for the prosecution of straw buyers? Any chance that some of the documents that Holder refuses to turn over are communications to and from Burke? Burke himself has been quick to leak sensitive documents in an attempt to discredit whistle-blower Dodson -- one more fact you won't run across in Eban's article.
In fact, ATF agents routinely do "rips," or warrantless arrests, when they have probable cause. You take the guns you've been watching. At the very least, you do a vehicle stop and ID the driver. Unemployed twenty-one-year-old straw buyers don't sue the AFT, and the cartels get the message. Agents repeatedly asked to do rips and were told, "No, just surveil." On one occasion, Casa got into a heated argument with MacAllister when he was told to stand down.
The Fortune piece ends with a final whopper. The claim that F&F was going to be used "to limit gun rights seems, to put it charitably, far fetched." But evidence has already surfaced that this is precisely what the administration was planning to do. The memos were disclosed by that obscure right-wing blog CBS News.
Do any of the documents Obama invoked executive privilege over corroborate or elaborate on this intention? Is any MSM newshound besides CBS's Sharyl Attkisson curious? What a nuisance that woman has been for liberals who just want to tell the truth about the scandal. Meanwhile, continuing to do the work that American journalists won't do are the guys who broke the story, Mike Vanderboegh and David Codrea, and Katie Pavlich and American Thinker's M. Catherine Evans.
Fortune would like readers to believe that Fast and Furious was run by a small, overworked office of seven agents, whose diligent efforts to stop the flow of guns into Mexico were thwarted by the U.S. Attorney's Office, and that the scandal was the result of personal grievances by vindictive agents that had nothing to do with gun-walking. Sheaves of documents and sworn testimony before Congress contradict this. If the operation was as innocent as Eban describes, it would not have produced over 75,000 documents, and the ATF and DOJ would have nothing to hide.
Hope MacAllister, Sunshine Bear, the agent who declined to arrest a gun-trafficker when there was probable cause, doesn't think so. In a recorded conversation in March 2011, she appears very worried about meddlesome senators and says of Holder's office that "at some point they're gonna have to say, Grassley, sit your ass down." Luckily, she adds, the minority party can't call a hearing.
Thanks to Fortune, the majority party now has a little more ammunition to resist calls for an independent investigation into Fast and Furious.
Launched in 1930, Fortune was the business magazine of Henry Luce's empire. Luce's flagship publications were TIME and Life. For those under fifty, Life and its rival Look were glossy large-format magazines with full-page photos of the week's events, celebrities, etc. Liberals used to repeat a slogan about the Luce magazines: "TIME is for people who can't think. Life is for people who can't read." Life expired as a weekly in 1972. But TIME, more than ever, is for people who can't think. Fortune is for people who can't Google.