The House of Representatives will vote today on contempt charges for Attorney General Eric Holder related to his involvement in Operation Fast and Furious. The vote follows Holder’s refusal to produce documents requested by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA).
The following is a brief history and timeline of the operation and subsequent scandal.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) named the gun-running operation after the 2001 movie about gangsters stealing and racing cars. They instructed gun dealers in Phoenix to sell weapons to buyers, even if gun dealers suspected that purchasers might be affiliated with Mexican drug cartels. Following orders from the federal government, gun dealers in Phoenix apprehensively sold hundreds of AK-47-type semi-automatic rifles and .50 caliber rifles to suspicious buyers, even if buyers did not have any form of identification.
The ATF, operating out of a field office in Phoenix, told gun dealers that the government would use an eTrace system to find the whereabouts of Mexican drug cartels. This eTrace system was first used during the Bush administration in a 2005 pilot project in Laredo, TX, known as “Project Gunrunner.” It was conceived as a way to reduce firearm trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border by identifying straw purchasers. ETrace was also used in “Operation Wide Receiver,” a program aimed to arrest straw purchasers. ETrace enabled law enforcement agents to track the serial numbers of guns found at crime scenes to their point of purchase. Unlike Fast and Furious, Operation Wide Receiver was launched “in close cooperation with the Mexican government,” according to Katie Pavlich’s investigative book, “Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and its Shameless Cover-Up.” Purchasers who crossed the border were to be arrested by Mexican authorities. But the operation was terminated after it was discovered that the Mexican government had not recovered some of the guns.
Under Fast and Furious, however, the eTrace system – funded in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package – was not properly implemented. ATF agents instructed gun dealers to sell guns without a reliable method to retrieve them since the tracing chips had not been implanted in the weapons. The Obama administration has not tried to recover the guns that crossed the border and did not inform the Mexican government about their plan or seek their assistance in arresting and prosecuting the ultimate recipients of these weapons in Mexico. The administration did not even inform their ATF liaison in the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.
Even though the investigation began in 2009, it only gained publicity after Jaime Avila, a member of a 20-person ring who smuggled guns into Mexico for use by the Sinaloa drug cartel, shot and killed U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry just 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Two of the weapons found at the scene had been sold through Operation Fast and Furious.
If the House votes to hold Holder in contempt, it will be the first time in history that an attorney general has received this reprimand.
Below is a timeline of Fast and Furious, providing details about major events regarding its official launch in September 2009:
March 24, 2009: David Ogden, deputy attorney general at the time, stated, “The president has directed us to take action to fight these cartels and Attorney General Eric Holder and I are taking several new and aggressive steps as part of the administration’s comprehensive plan.”
September 2009: Fast and Furious is launched shortly after money is allocated from the stimulus to fund “Project Gunrunner.”
November 2009: Whistleblower and ATF special agent John Dodson and his teammates watched Uriel Patino and Jaime Avila, two of the most notorious people in the gun-trafficking ring, buy automatic weapons. ATF agents did not stop them.
Jan. 16, 2010: Jaime Avila purchased the guns used to kill Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
January 2010: Dodson speaks to Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, about Fast and Furious. The Senate Judiciary Committee begins investigating. ATF Special Agent Bill Newell, who oversaw the operation, denies gun-walking.
April 16, 2010: Obama said at a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon that he believes that assault weapons should be banned in order to “prevent” gun trafficking in Mexico.
June 2010: Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu declared that parts of Arizona are under the cartels’ control.
June 2010: A concerned gun dealer e-mailed David Voth, supervisor of the program along with Newell and William McMahon: “I guess I am looking for a bit of reassurance that the guns are not getting south or in the wrong hands.”
Dec. 14, 2010: Terry was shot and killed 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Dec. 21, 2010: At Terry’s funeral, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offered his mother, Josephine, condolences on behalf of Obama for her deceased son. Later reports revealed that Napolitano knew about Fast and Furious and potentially lied to Congress in sworn testimony at a hearing.
January 2011: Uriel Patino was arrested. Congressional investigators estimate that Patino bought more than 720 firearms.
Feb. 15, 2011: Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata was killed in a roadside attack in northern Mexico. Fellow agent Victor Avila was wounded.
March 16, 2011: Issa and Grassley request documents from the ATF. The agency did not comply with their request.
March 27, 2011: Obama is asked about Fast and Furious on television in Mexico, and denies that he or Holder knew about it.
April 1, 2011: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued its first subpoena to ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson.
May 2, 2011: Napolitano and Holder entered and left the White House together, without any documented reason. They met with Obama in the East Room.
May 3, 2011: Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, claiming that he had heard about Fast and Furious within the past few weeks.
June-July 2011: House Democrats submit gun-control legislation, and e-mails surface showing that Fast and Furious was designed to promote gun control.
July 26, 2011: Issa’s committee held another hearing after still being denied thousands of documents from the DOJ. It featured ATF agents working in Mexico who were not told about Fast and Furious.
Aug. 17, 2011: Three ATF supervisors leading Fast and Furious in Phoenix – Newell, McMahon, and Voth – were offered jobs at the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Voth received a promotion while the other were lateral moves.
October 2011: Memos addressed to Holder regarding Fast and Furious from one year prior were discovered, dated nearly a year before he admitted knowing about the gun-walking scandal.
Nov. 8, 2011: Holder appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and admited for the first time that gun-walking occurred. He did not apologize to the Terry family. He eventually expressed condolences after leaking the apology e-mail to the press prior to contacting the family.
Feb. 2, 2012: Before the House Judiciary Committee, Holder said DOJ is not involved in a cover-up.
June 14, 2012: Two South Texas law firms representing the family of Jaime Zapata file a claim against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI, ATF and DOJ. The claim states that two AK-47 rifles bought in Texas and smuggled into Mexico were used by the attackers to fire more than 90 rounds at men.
June 19, 2012: Issa’s committee voted to hold Eric Holder in contempt by a 23-17 vote. Obama asserts executive privilege to maintain secrecy over the documents that Holder will not bring forth to Congress.
June 27, 2012: The House will proceed with a vote on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for withholding documents.
Melanie Wilcox is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.