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Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie

Furious reaction

As Justice Department gun scandal grows, the administration lashes out at a CBS reporter

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011

WASHINGTON-The slow-boil controversy over Operation Fast and Furious is now raising the ire of both political parties. Republicans are upset with Obama administration officials for stonewalling the investigation into a federal gun program that supplied firearms to Mexican drug cartels. Democrats in the White House are furious at one reporter for sticking with the story.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Oct. 4 requesting that he appoint a special counsel to examine whether Attorney General Eric Holder misled congressional lawmakers during testimony under oath on May 3. Smith's committee had asked Holder to explain when he had first learned about Fast and Furious, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program that distributed more than 2,000 guns to a Mexican trafficking network.

Documents show that agents used taxpayer funds to purchase the semi-automatic weapons and then sold them to at least one cartel. The guns later turned up at numerous violent crime scenes in both Mexico and the United States, including one attack that killed a U.S. border agent. When a whistleblower revealed the operation, the Justice Department initially claimed it was a "botched" operation during which agents had "lost track" of the weapons.

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Holder, in his May testimony, said, "I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks." The question now is whether Holder perjured himself: Smith wrote in his letter that several recently released memos "raise significant questions about the truthfulness of the attorney general's testimony." For example, the director of the National Drug Intelligence Center told Holder in a July 2010 memo that the operation was "responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to the Mexican drug trafficking cartels."

In his letter to Obama, Smith wrote that documents suggest Holder began receiving weekly briefings about Fast and Furious no later than July 5, 2010: "Senior Justice Department officials may have intentionally misled members of Congress." Other lawmakers pressing for more information include Sen. John McCain and other members of the congressional delegation from Arizona, the state where border patrol agent Brian Terry was gunned down in December 2010. Investigators found two guns from the program at the crime scene.

As Congress tried to unravel the truth of what Holder knew and when he knew it, one reporter found herself in a White House hornet's nest. CBS News investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson told the Laura Ingraham Show on Oct. 4 that White House and Justice Department officials yelled and screamed at her for pursuing the story.

Attkisson said a White House official cursed at her while arguing that investigating the scandal was unnecessary. She added that government officials argued she was not being reasonable since she was the only reporter pursuing the story: "They say The Washington Post is reasonable, the LA Times is reasonable, The New York Times is reasonable. I'm the only one who thinks this is a story, and they think I'm unfair and biased by pursuing it."

Listen to a report on Fast and Furious from the Oct. 15 edition of the radio program The World and Everything in It.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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