Jul 3 2012

Not So Fast on Fast & Furious

CBS sold 'scandal' on false premises

If you’ve paid much attention to media reports about the “Fast and Furious” scandal, you may be under the impression that government agencies inexplicably allowed guns to be purchased in the United States and shipped across the border to drug lords in Mexico, where they ended up being connected to the December 2010 death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

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.

But an investigation in Fortune (6/27/12) shows that there are serious holes in the Fast & Furious narrative told by right-wing media–and, most influentially, by the CBS Evening News.

The most obvious question about the program–run out of a Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)–is one journalists are taught to ask first: Why? Why wouldn’t law enforcement officials arrest gun buyers in this country who were placing unusually large orders of powerful weapons and shipping them to Mexican drug gangs? According to the story told by CBS, the point was to let guns “walk” in order to catch the bigger fish on the other side of the border.

Risky as that sounds, some on the right have accused the program of having even more sinister aims: The Obama administration, they charge, deliberately let guns fall into the hands of criminals, hoping to use the ensuing crisis to push for new, more restrictive gun laws. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who has championed the scandal, raised this possibility in an appearance before the NRA. (ABC‘s Jake Tapper questioned Issa about his remarks on June 24.)

But according to the new investigation by Fortune‘s Katherine Eban, the real story is very different. As Eban wrote:

Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that [local ATF official Dave] Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths and even some outright lies.

One key fact is that Arizona, home to many “straw buyers,” boasts incredibly lax gun laws. As a result, local prosecutors would not prosecute the drug cartels’ 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. Eban 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 prosecutors thought otherwise, as Eban explained:

It was nearly impossible in Arizona to bring a case against a straw purchaser. 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. To these prosecutors, the pattern proved little. Instead, agents needed to link specific evidence of intent to commit a crime to each gun they wanted to seize.

Eban’s investigations shows that ATF officials were forced to go to considerable lengths–involving wiretaps of suspected recruiters–in order to build cases that prosecutors would follow up. But wiretap applications dragged on in some cases. Prosecutors did not step in, Eban reports, until the Terry murder–at which point 20 suspects were indicted.

So why did Fast & Furious become a national scandal? Obama’s claim of executive privilege certainly aroused suspicion, and some genuine concern about government transparency. Conservative media have been obsessed with the story. But the “scandal,” as Eban shows, gained a national platform thanks mostly to CBS Evening News and reporter Sharyl Attkisson.

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.”

This was how CBS reporters consistently described the operation: “ATF was allegedly allowing Mexican drug cartels be armed with assault rifles from the U.S.,” Attkisson explained (3/4/11). Anchor Bob Schieffer (10/3/11) told viewers that

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

And on June 20, 2012, Attkisson offered this recap of the story:

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. It’s called gun walking, to see where they ended up and see if they would lead to a major drug cartel leader.

The Fortune investigation demonstrates that CBS‘s reporting of the story is, at best, 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.

That flawed assumption formed the basis of CBS‘s reporting on the issue. And Eban notes that in one CBS segment (3/3/11), Attkisson shaped the facts to match that storyline:

There was so much opposition to the gun walking that an ATF supervisor issued this e-mail noting a schism among the agents.

That is inaccurate. As Eban reports, the “schism” involved office politics– including “petty arguing” and “adolescent behavior.” It was not an argument over the supposed ATF plan to let guns flow to drug cartels. (The Fortune website includes the entire memo.)

What about the gun that was found at the scene of Brian Terry’s murder? According to CBS‘s Attkison (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, 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 calls into question the very foundation of the story that has been reported by major news outlets. And it documents the impact of lax gun laws, which would seem to be the main factor limiting law enforcement from stopping these weapons transfers.

In the wake of the Fortune story, more information is coming out that challenges the CBS storyline. NBC Nightly News (6/29/12) interviewed former ATF agent William Newell, who said: “The notion that we somehow intentionally let guns walk is insane. It never happened.”

But CBS Evening News, which did so much to turn this story into a national scandal, does not appear to have followed up on the Fast & Furious story since the Fortune piece came out.