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July 3, 2012

Q&A on Fast and Furious

Q:    What is so important about this congressional investigation?
A:    When a person dies in service to his country, and his own government may have contributed to his death, covered up evidence about the circumstances, or both, the survivors’ families and the American people have a right to know the truth.  In December 2010, Customs and Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered and two of the weapons found at the scene were linked to Operation Fast and Furious, a gun-walking operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).  Since then, despite numerous requests from Congress – made in letters, meetings and hearings and by subpoena – the Department of Justice, which is in charge of the ATF, has stonewalled and resisted providing documents about the operation.  Along the way, the Department of Justice has insisted there was no gun-walking, then retracted that statement and reversed itself.  Clearly, the only way to try to get an accurate, complete account of what happened and why is to obtain every record and account of the facts.  Without the complete set of facts, fair and informed conclusions can’t be drawn, and we might never know what happened to Agent Terry.  That can’t stand.

Q:    How did you get involved?
A:    A month after Agent Terry’s death, whistleblowers within the ATF came to my office with information about the guns found at the murder scene and evidence that Operation Fast and Furious possibly let as many as 2,500 other weapons flow from gun stores in Phoenix, Arizona, to Mexico and other places in the United States.  These whistleblowers had expressed concerns to the ATF about the dangers of selling to known straw buyers, but the ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s office had urged the dealers to keep selling anyway.  I sent a letter to the ATF asking if there was any truth to these allegations and indicated I had documents to back them up.  Amazingly, the Department of Justice responded with a flat-out denial one week later.  I kept asking and showed evidence to the contrary to government officials.  A full ten months later, the Department of Justice withdrew its denial.  The oversight committee investigation in the House of Representatives stemmed from these inquiries and resulted in the Attorney General being held in contempt of Congress by the House of Representatives, for the first time ever.  The vote was 255 to 67.  The House also voted to authorize civil action in courts to compel production of subpoenaed documents.  I supported these efforts because contempt is the only tool Congress has to enforce a subpoena.  It is not a finding that the Attorney General is guilty of any wrongdoing in the underlying case.  Rather, it’s an important procedural mechanism in our system of checks and balances to require that information be provided to Congress.  People deserve transparency and the accountability from their government.

Q:    What would motivate the government to let guns walk into the hands of criminals?
A:    Fast and Furious was built on a strategic decision to gather information rather than to enforce the law, all in the service of making a big, headline-grabbing case.  Tragically, when the headlines came, they were about the death of a brave federal agent rather than the capture of a drug kingpin.  Such a death was just what was feared by a cooperating gun dealer six months earlier.  This dealer expressed concerns in emails to the ATF that his cooperation with the government might get someone killed.  The ATF replied in writing and said not to worry, just keep selling to the straw buyers and ATF would stop the guns before they went south.  The gun stores were told their cooperation was necessary to the ATF case.  Without that assurance, there’s little doubt they would have stopped making the suspicious sales.  But the gun dealers depend on the ATF for their licenses, so when the ATF asks for help there isn’t much choice but to cooperate.  The ATF assured gun stores it was taking care of everything on its end but, instead, the ATF let the straw-buying ring operate and grow for months and months.  They watched and waited despite having information about the ring leader from the beginning.  To say the operation was “fundamentally flawed,” as the Attorney General has admitted, is an understatement.  Along with getting information for the family of Brian Terry and holding the highest ranking government official accountable, my goal for this congressional investigation is to make sure a disastrous government program like this never happens again.