Now that Republicans in Congress won important concessions from President Obama in the debt ceiling debate, the next partisan battle is likely to be over what promises to be the first major scandal of the Obama administration: the botched gun sting known as "Operation Fast and Furious." The administration should waste no time and come clean about what happened, who approved it, and how it can be avoided again.
Unfortunately, the early signs are that Obama is going to handle this controversy as poorly as he handled the debt ceiling debate.
First, a little background. The operation began in November 2009 in an effort to crack down on Mexican drug cartels, which have been known to use military-style firearms purchased in gun shops on the U.S. side of the border. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive ("ATF") allowed approximately 1,700 guns to be sold illegally to suppliers of the cartels and then failed to keep track of the weapons. Many of the guns have since been recovered at crime scenes, including two guns recovered at the scene of a fatal attack on a U.S. border agent.
A congressional oversight committee has already launched an investigation, headed up by California Republican Darrell Issa. The administration has dug in its heals and appears to be cooperating only superficially with the committee. Kenneth Melson, the acting director of ATF, reportedly told members of Congress that the Department of Justice is hiding information in an effort to protect "political appointees," perhaps including Attorney General Eric Holder.
And a report last week disclosed that the administration also gave misleading answers to an inquiry from U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley about the guns found at the border agent's murder.
If the Obama administration doesn't act quickly to address this scandal, the squall over the misguided sting could become a Category 5 hurricane.
Although Fast and Furious hasn't garnered much attention so far in the mainstream press, it's become the talk of the gun rights community. The NRA, which has long demonized Holder for his support of gun control, will continue to pressure Issa and it's other allies on Capitol Hill to investigate further. Melson, the ATF chief, apparently believes that by pinning blame on Justice Department officials, he can save his job. With the 2012 election on the horizon, Republicans in Congress have every incentive to keep digging.
As usual in Washington, the cover-up is probably worse than the crime. Law enforcement uses sting operations all the time. Sometimes you have to allow smaller crimes to occur so that you can capture the people behind far bigger crimes. In this case, the government was going after major drug kingpins responsible for an unprecedented wave of violence in Mexico. On this side of the border, the targeted cartels are feeding drugs to American children.
Fast and Furious may have been a bad idea, but Americans can understand the dire situation that led to the program. Indeed, members of Congress, including Issa, were apparently informed about the sting operation a year ago and raised no objection. Cracking down on violent drug lords is inevitably a messy job.
Yet instead of defending itself, the administration has stonewalled. Melson said he was instructed not to speak with congressional investigators. Months after receiving requests from Congress, the DOJ has only turned over only a paltry number of documents.
When Sen. Grassley asked ATF if the guns that had been "used" in the killing of the border agent were part of the Fast and Furious operation, the bureau said no. The bureau failed to acknowledge, however, that two of the guns found at the scene were indeed part of the program on the shaky grounds that the evidence didn't conclusively show the Fast and Furious guns fired the fatal shots.
That kind of logic may work for a lawyer in a court of law, but won't work for politicians in the halls of Congress.
The administration claims there are current law enforcement efforts that require secrecy. Yet those reasons shouldn't prevent disclosure of information about the planning of the sting.
The administration's stalling is also likely to impede its efforts to adopt new gun control. Efforts to shore up the background checks required for many gun purchases and a proposal to restrict high-capacity ammunition clips won't go anywhere so long as Republicans in Congress can point to the ATF scandal. Nor will the administration gain confirmation of its new choice to head ATF so long as Melson is seen as a whistleblower.
Obama took office promising unparalleled transparency, yet top officials have been anything but with regard to Fast and Furious. Instead of addressing the questions head on, which might end the controversy quickly, the administration is guaranteeing that the investigation will drag on and on. Soon it will develop into a full-blown political scandal and Obama will wish that instead of ignoring this controversy, he'd dealt with it fast and furious.