Aug 1 2012

Not So Fast on Fast and Furious

Fortune investigation shoots holes in scandal narrative

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Gregory Wild-Smith

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Gregory Wild-Smith

When it comes to ginning up scandals, the Obama administration has been a disappointment for the right-wing media, which had much more luck in the Clinton era. But they’ve found some red meat with “Fast and Furious”—thanks in large part to CBS Evening News, the story’s most prominent platform. Like most Clinton scandals (Extra!, 9–10/95, 11–12/96, 1–2/97), however, the story looks far less scandalous when you learn the details left out of most media accounts.

The “Fast and Furious” story, as peddled by the right, tells us that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)—a perennial target of pro-gun activists—allowed guns to be purchased in the United States and shipped across the border into Mexico, where they ended up being used in the December 2010 shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Instead of stepping in to arrest the buyers, the scenario goes, the agents let the guns fall into the wrong hands on purpose, hoping to arrest bigger players.

Soon after Terry’s death, the story bloomed into a political scandal, with conservative lawmakers demanding to know who was behind the program. Barack Obama has claimed executive privilege to block the release of internal Justice Department communications about the program. That led to a congressional vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.

For some on the right, the program had even more sinister aims: The Obama administration, they charge, deliberately let guns fall into the hands of criminals in order to use the ensuing crisis to push for more restrictive new gun laws. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who has championed the scandal, raised this possibility in an appearance before the NRA. (See sidebar, “Fox and Furious.”)

But an investigation by Katherine Eban in Fortune (6/27/12) shows that the Fast and Furious narrative is “replete with distortions, errors, partial truths and even some outright lies.” Those lies were told most influentially by CBS Evening News.

CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s first report (3/3/11) alleged that her ATF agent source, whose job is to “stop gun trafficking across the border,” was told to do something else:

He says he was ordered to sit by and watch it happen. Investigators call the tactic letting guns walk. In this case, into the hands of criminals who would use them in Mexico and the U.S.

Attkisson told viewers that “the idea was to see where the guns ended up, build a big case and take down a major cartel.” She added that the ATF “not only allowed the guns to walk, they videotaped it.”

The story became a major focus for Attkisson, and she stuck to the script: “ATF was allegedly allowing Mexican drug cartels [to] be armed with assault rifles from the U.S.,” she explained (3/4/11). Anchor Bob Schieffer (10/3/11) followed suit, telling viewers that

the idea was to allow illegal guns to be shipped into Mexico so investigators could trace where they were going and get a better handle on where Mexico’s criminal cartels were operating. The program has been a disaster.

Attkisson’s reporting formed part of the narrative carried by the right—and earned her an award from the far-right Accuracy In Media (2/1/12).

On June 20, 2012, as the scandal’s political dimensions grew, Attkisson offered viewers a quick recap:

In late 2009, ATF agents in Phoenix noticed a flurry of gun purchases in the United States by suspected traffickers from Mexican drug cartels, including giant 50-caliber rifles. But instead of stopping the weapons, agents say their superiors ordered them to let the guns cross the border.

One key fact pointed out by the Fortune investigation: Arizona, home to many “straw buyers,” boasts incredibly lax gun laws. As a result, Arizona federal prosecutors would not prosecute the drug cartels’ presumed gun buyers—because, they said, charges wouldn’t stand up in court. The permissive gun laws that make it exceedingly difficult to indict suspicious gun buyers, Eban points out, are championed by groups like the NRA. She noted the irony:

Republicans who support the National Rifle Association and its attempts to weaken gun laws are lambasting ATF agents for not seizing enough weapons—ones that, in this case, prosecutors deemed to be legal.

Indeed, ATF agents compiled what they believed to be detailed cases against specific buyers—20 suspects paying $350,000 for over 600 guns as of January 2010. One suspect—who was apparently receiving food stamps—had purchased $300,000 worth of firearms in six months.

But, according to Eban’s story, prosecutors thought otherwise:

The federal prosecutors there did not consider the purchase of a huge volume of guns, or their handoff to a third party, sufficient evidence to seize them. A buyer who certified that the guns were for himself, then handed them off minutes later, hadn’t necessarily lied and was free to change his mind. Even if a suspect bought 10 guns that were recovered days later at a Mexican crime scene, this didn’t mean the initial purchase had been illegal.

Eban’s investigations shows that ATF officials faced considerable odds in their attempts to build cases that prosecutors would follow up. Prosecutors did not step in, Eban reports, until the Terry murder—at which point 20 suspects were indicted.

What about the gun that was found at the scene of Brian Terry’s murder? According to CBS’s Attkisson (3/3/11), “Two assault rifles ATF had let walk nearly a year before, similar to these, were found at Terry’s murder.” But Eban points out that the guns in question were purchased legally. By the time the ATF was notified by the gun dealer, “the legally purchased guns had been gone for three days. The agents had never seen the weapons and had no chance to seize them.”

The Fortune investigation demonstrates that CBS’s reporting of the story is highly misleading. There was, in fact, no plan to purposely allow guns to flow into Mexico. What there was, rather, was a belief that applicable gun laws made it impossible to legally seize the guns. Somehow a story that should have focused on the consequences of NRA-approved gun laws became a scandal about something very different.

The Fortune story did inspire other media followups (NBC News, 6/29/12; Washington Post, 6/28/12). But what about CBS Evening News, which did so much to turn this story into a national scandal? The program went silent.

And in some ways, the damage was done. On ABC World News, correspondent Pierre Thomas reported news of new indictments in the Terry murder this way (7/9/12): “The irony is, the United States government is pulling out all the stops to solve a murder it apparently contributed to by putting guns in the hands of Terry’s killers.”

That a network TV correspondent could blithely accuse the U.S. government of being an accessory to the murder of a federal agent shows how deeply the false narrative of Fast and Furious has become embedded in the media.