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Amidst Holder Contempt Vote, New Investigation Undermines Key GOP Claims on “Fast and Furious”

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder faces a contempt vote by the House of Representatives today in a dispute involving an alleged botched gun-running probe. Republican lawmakers have accused Holder of withholding documents about a gun-running sting operation on the U.S.-Mexico border codenamed “Fast and Furious.” For months, Republican lawmakers have alleged that U.S. agents encouraged the sale of thousands of guns to middlemen for Mexican drug cartels in an attempt to gain access to senior-level figures within Mexico’s criminal organizations. Federal agents then lost track of as many as 2,500 guns. But a new six-month investigation by Katherine Eban in Fortune magazine concludes that federal agents “never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.” Eban joins us to discuss her findings. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder faces a contempt vote by the House of Representatives today in a dispute involving an alleged botched gun-running probe. Republican lawmakers have accused Holder of withholding documents about a gun-running sting operation on the U.S.-Mexico border codenamed “Fast and Furious.” House Speaker John Boehner said the contempt vote was needed after talks with the White House failed to produce the documents.

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: The American people have a right to know what happened. And we’re going to proceed. We’ve given them ample opportunity to comply, even as late as yesterday. The White House sat down with some of our staff to outline what they’d be willing to do. Unfortunately, they’re not willing to show the American people the truth about what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, President Obama asserted executive privilege over the documents. It was Obama’s first use of executive privilege in response to a congressional investigation. Democrats have called today’s contempt vote a political stunt ahead of the November election. Politico reports members of the Congressional Black Caucus plan to walk off the House floor during the vote.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now a dispute is emerging over crucial details about the Fast and Furious program. For months, Republican lawmakers have alleged that U.S. agents encouraged the sale of thousands of guns to middlemen for Mexican drug cartels in an attempt to gain access to senior-level figures within Mexico’s criminal organizations. Federal agents then lost track of as many as 2,500 guns. But a new six-month investigation by Fortune magazine concludes that federal agents, quote, “never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.”

We’re joined now by an award-winning investigative reporter, Katherine Eban, who wrote the piece for Fortune magazine. The piece is called “The Truth about the Fast and Furious Scandal.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!

KATHERINE EBAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the truth, Katherine?

KATHERINE EBAN: The truth is that ATF agents, over almost a year, tried in every way possible to seize guns that were being purchased by straw purchasers for the cartels but were thwarted at every turn by prosecutors who, in their interpretation of the laws, said that the purchases were legal.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you note that in—Arizona had some of the weakest gun control laws of any state in the union, right?

KATHERINE EBAN: Absolutely. I mean, if you’re 18 and have no criminal record, you can go into a gun dealership, put down cash and come out with 15 AK-47s, with no waiting periods, no requirement for extra permits. So, in fact, according to copious documentation that I have reviewed, prosecutors made the determination that the transactions that the agents were watching were in fact legal, and they did not have grounds to make the seizures or the arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece, Katherine Eban, by saying, “In the annals of impossible assignments, Dave Voth’s ranked high.” Who was Dave Voth?

KATHERINE EBAN: Dave Voth was the group supervisor of Phoenix Group VII, whose task was to oversee this unit that was dedicated to stopping guns from being trafficked across the Mexican border. He was the ATF law enforcement agent of the year in 2009 for dismantling two violent street gangs in Minneapolis. The ATF determined that he was the best man for the job to tackle this assignment, but he went down to Arizona and found himself in a kind of, you know, Alice in Wonderland with guns. I mean, in Arizona, best business practices, you can—there’s a gun dealer there who does not want to sell to straw purchasers. He has a sign on his door that says, “One AK-47 per customer per day.” And that is basically the—you know, how you limit gun purchases. So the situation was like none he had ever encountered, and prosecutors there and ATF agents had clashed for years over the question of how and when you are able to seize guns.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your article also raises questions as to the way that the ATF has become almost dysfunctional because of congressional oversight over what it can do responding to the gun lobby, internal battles within the agency, the lack of a permanent leadership. Could you talk about the problems that the ATF is having?

KATHERINE EBAN: Yeah, I mean, first of all, this is a bureau that has always been a sort of poor stepchild, first of the Treasury Department, and then it was moved in Homeland Security under the Justice Department. It has not had permanent leadership for six years. There is no comprehensive real-time database of gun purchases in the United States, which would be absolutely easy to have. I mean, we certainly have the technology to do it. But consequently, the only way that ATF agents can know if there are mass purchases of guns is through this archeological exercise.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why is there no database?

KATHERINE EBAN: Because the NRA has fought against it. So the ATF’s congressional appropriation specifically prohibits it.

AMY GOODMAN: Katherine Eban, tell us what really the House Republicans are—and a handful of Democrats who are going to vote against Holder today, vote—hold him in contempt—what is their theory of what happened?

KATHERINE EBAN: Well, I can’t say what is in their head, and the theory has changed as it’s been promulgated, you know, over months, but one of the theories is that somehow there was a Justice Department cover-up of this operation and that they are withholding documents to conceal this from Congress, and therefore Holder should be held in contempt.

AMY GOODMAN: But that also this is a conspiracy to regulate guns?

KATHERINE EBAN: Yes, that basically allowing the situation to become so bad, allowing these guns to get into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, would be a way to illustrate the need for gun control. But, you know, I should hasten to add that it was ATF agents who were able to track and uncover the purchase of these guns. Without that, guns, day after day, hour after hour, pour across the Mexican border, and some estimates are as high as 2,000 guns a day are smuggled across the border.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what are the specific documents that Holder, according to Congress, is withholding?

KATHERINE EBAN: Unclear what exactly. You know, and some people call this a fishing expedition. But, in theory, the documents being withheld are internal Justice Department documents that discuss how the Justice Department should respond to the congressional inquiry. So this is really far afield from documents related to the actual Fast and Furious investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry?

KATHERINE EBAN: Right. Well, that’s what actually brought this whole dispute within Group VII into the public, which is, in December 2011, a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was gunned down on the border. Two weapons that were found at the scene of his murder were linked to purchases by Fast and Furious suspects. Now, you know, these are guns that, it has been alleged, were allowed to flow into the hands of Mexican criminals, who then killed Brian Terry. But in my reporting and according to a contemporaneous case report I obtained, the ATF agents only learned about these guns three days after they were purchased. Clearly, these are not guns that they allowed to walk. These are not guns that they would have been able to seize under any theory.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, a spokesperson for the House Oversight Committee has refuted key arguments made in your article. He said the story was, quote, “a fantasy made up almost entirely from the accounts of individuals involved in the reckless tactics that took place in Operation Fast and Furious. It contains factual errors—including the false statement that Chairman Issa has called for Attorney General Holder’s resignation—and multiple distortions. It also hides critical information from readers — including a report in the Wall Street Journal — indicating that its primary sources may be facing criminal charges.” Spokesperson for the House Oversight Committee. Your response?

KATHERINE EBAN: I mean, there are many, many parts of that statement. Several weeks ago, Representative Issa said that Holder should either lead or resign. You can get that from a two-second Google search. So, I’m not sure that I mischaracterized his statement there. You know, the information that they offered me is some of the same information that they’ve been offering to journalists for a year, and much of which has been accepted by the mainstream press. I chose, in my reporting and in weighing the veracity of my sources and in analyzing documents, that some of what they were offering me was either not relevant or not true. And those are the kinds of decisions that you make in this kind of reporting when you put various facts on the scale. Some of what they did tell me and shared with me is in the article. So, you know, I respectfully disagree with that statement.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play for you a recent comment by Darrell Issa, the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Speaking on This Week on ABC, he accused the Obama administration of using the Fast and Furious sting operation to push for greater gun control legislation.

REP. DARRELL ISSA: But here’s the real answer as to gun control. We have emails from people involved in this that are talking about using what they’re finding here to support the—yeah, basically assault weapons ban or greater reporting. So, chicken or egg? We don’t know which came first; we probably never will. We do know that during this Fast and Furious operation, there were emails in which they’re saying, “We can use this as part of additional reporting or things like assault weapons ban.” So, the people involved saw the benefit of what they were gathering. Whether or not that was their original purpose, we probably will never know.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Chairman Darrell Issa. Katherine Eban, your final response?

KATHERINE EBAN: Some of what was called for by ATF agents makes sense, which is that if an 18-year-old kid goes into a gun dealership and buys 15 AK-47s, it would be a good idea for the gun dealers to tell ATF agents that that occurred. I mean, that is the reporting requirement that the administration has actually fought for. Had that occurred, then they would have known in real time about the guns that ended up killing Brian Terry. A reporting requirement like that does not currently exist but was imposed—now has been imposed on a temporary basis. The NRA is fighting it. So, you know, you can debate, but—the merits of this, but the idea that somehow the Fast and Furious operation was a plot to restrict gun rights, I don’t see any evidence for that.

AMY GOODMAN: And if Eric Holder—if Holder is held in contempt today, the significance of this?

KATHERINE EBAN: Hard to say, because it’s hard to say what will happen with that. I mean, you know, is the Justice Department going to investigate Eric Holder and have him removed? That’s highly unlikely. So, some people have said, you know, this is a largely symbolic contempt vote that is—that is entirely political.

AMY GOODMAN: Katherine Eban, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Her piece in Fortune magazine is called “The Truth about the Fast and Furious Scandal.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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