White House treated criticism as partisan attack, 2 scholars say
Texas professors say
Five ways 'Furious' was mishandled
Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star
| Posted: Sunday, January 1, 2012 12:00 am
The Obama administration could have gotten ahead of the revelations
about Operation Fast and Furious before it became a scandal, say a
pair of researchers on U.S. presidential scandals.
Instead, it treated criticism of the ill-conceived gun-trafficking
investigation like a partisan attack, said professors Brandon
Rottinghaus and Scott Basinger of the University of Houston. By
waiting to disclose the details of the Phoenix-based investigation
that facilitated the sale of 2,000 firearms to suspected criminals,
the Justice Department opened itself to ongoing disclosures and
critiques, they said.
Now those are continuing more than a year after U.S. Border Patrol
Agent Brian Terry was killed near Rio Rico, possibly with a Fast and
Furious gun, and even as a presidential election year begins.
"They've been nonchalant about it, and I don't think that's the best
thing for them," said political-science professor Rottinghaus.
Basinger, his research partner and fellow political-science
professor, said the administration's response reflects a trend in
today's highly partisan politics.
"Because things are so polarized, one side is immediately convicting
and insisting it goes all the way to the top," Basinger said. "The
other side is insisting there's nothing there."
The Justice Department has pointed to its practice of not commenting
on ongoing investigations as a reason for its relative silence. Also,
the department's Office of Inspector General is conducting its own
investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, so the department is
taking few steps until the report is complete.
Here are five episodes since Terry was killed on Dec. 14, 2010, when
the Justice Department and its agencies either flubbed its response
to the operation or could have done better to get ahead of the
1. December 2010-February 2011: Non-disclosure of Fast and Furious
after Terry was slain
On Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010, the day after Terry was killed, federal
officials gathered in Tucson for a news conference and other
consultations, as agents combed the area northwest of Nogales for
FBI supervisors knew that day that two assault rifles found at the
scene of Terry's murder had been sold at a Phoenix gun store to a man
under surveillance by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and
Explosives. Dennis Burke, then-U.S. attorney for Arizona, Burke
confirmed it that night.
But it took about three months until the Justice Department
acknowledged the connection of those guns to the investigation.
On Feb. 4, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote Sen. Chuck
Grassley, R-Iowa, a letter, now notorious, denying the connections:
"The allegation described in your January 27 letter - that ATF
'sanctioned' or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault
weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico -
is false. ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been
purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico."
"There was information in that letter that was inaccurate," Attorney
General Eric Holder admitted Nov. 8. "I received things as late as
March of 2011 from people at ATF who assured me that gun walking did
2. May 3, 2011: When Holder learned of the operation
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on May 3, U.S. Rep.
Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Holder when he first learned about
Operation Fast and Furious.
Holder answered, "I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably
heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few
That estimate came back to bite him in October, when, in response to
a request from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee,
the Justice Department handed over several 2010 memos to Holder
describing Fast and Furious.
At a Nov. 8 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder denied
he read the memos sent him in 2010 because it's actually staff who
reads the many memos addressed formally to him.
"I have ultimate responsibility for that which happens in the
department, but I cannot be expected to know the details for every
operation that is ongoing in the Justice Department on a day-to-day
basis," Holder said.
At the same hearing, he said it would have been more accurate to say
on May 3 he'd heard of Fast and Furious in the past "couple of months."
3. Aug. 11, 2011: Victim status for Terry's parents
In an Aug. 1 court filing, Brian Terry's parents asked through their
attorney to be officially recognized as victims in the case against
accused gun trafficker Jaime Avila Jr., federal prosecutors say.
Avila is accused of buying AK-47-type guns from Phoenix-area stores
for Mexican crime groups. He has pleaded not guilty. Two guns he
bought, Romanian-made assault rifles, were found at the scene of
Terry's killing, but the FBI said it cannot determine whether either
was the murder weapon.
To the surprise of Josephine and Kent Terry's attorney, a federal
prosecutor argued against their request to be named victims. That
status would have required the government to inform the family of
hearings and any possibility the defendant would be released, as well
as assuring them a chance to speak at Avila's sentencing.
The prosecutor who opposed the parents' request was Emory Hurley, the
same attorney who led Operation Fast and Furious for almost two
years. He said in his response that the Terrys would certainly be
afforded victim status in the separate case against those accused of
killing their son, but that Avila's alleged crimes were too
disconnected from the killing for them to fit the legal definition of
Soon, Hurley was removed from the case, which was handed over to
federal prosecutors in San Diego. They found a way to keep the Terrys
informed about the case without formally declaring them victims.
4. November 2011: Ex-U.S. attorney admits leak
Over the summer and into the fall, Grassley spoke angrily about a
memo and a set of talking points leaked to a reporter that smeared
ATF Special Agent John Dodson. Grassley pointed to the leak as an
attempt to retaliate against Dodson, the whistle-blower who
originally contacted Grassley about Operation Fast and Furious in
The documents were never released publicly or even used in a news
story, but the leak became big news Nov. 8 when former U.S. Attorney
Dennis Burke admitted publicly he was responsible. On Aug. 16, Burke
had privately told the inspector general's investigators that he
leaked the memo. He resigned Aug. 30.
Burke's admission did not satisfy Grassley, who promised the drip-
drip of disclosures would continue.
"The Justice Department should not be allowed to continue
scapegoating the one person who has resigned," Grassley said in a
5. November 2011: Case against Terry's accused killer sealed
Sometime in late 2011, while reporters and other watchdogs had their
eyes averted, federal prosecutors asked that the case against the
people accused of killing Brian Terry be sealed.
It's not unusual that cases are sealed in federal court, but the
decision threw another blanket of obscurity over a prominent case
already layered in haze.
Manuel Osorio-Arellanes was indicted and charged with second-degree
murder in May, but the indictment said Osorio-Arellanes was not the
man who shot Terry. He was just a member of the "rip crew" whom
Terry's tactical unit encountered that night west of Rio Rico.
Other names appeared to be listed on the indictment, but those were
Some supporters of Brian Terry and his family saw the sealing as a
sign that the Justice Department was trying to hide something, but
Brandon Judd, president of the agents' union local in Southern
Arizona, took a more nuanced view. He said there may be a legitimate
investigative reason for sealing the indictment, but agents are
frustrated with the secrecy.
He also said the sealing keeps prying eyes off what he suspects will
be information showing "a debacle on the part of the government."
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"Because things are so polarized, one side is immediately convicting
and insisting it goes all the way to the top. The other side is
insisting there's nothing there."
University of Houston political-science professor
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