The federal law enforcement operation known as “Fast and Furious” was a debacle that almost assuredly cost the life of at least one American Border Patrol agent. Yet, unlike the standoff and assault nearly two decades ago on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas – a tragedy of epic proportions that claimed the lives of some six dozen civilians along with those of four federal agents – the officials responsible for conducting Fast and Furious actually are being held accountable.
Importantly, however, the systemic problems infecting the one agency deeply involved in both debacles – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, commonly known as “ATF” – continue to color its activities to this day. In fact, legislation passed in 2005 designed to make the agency more accountable, has never been fully implemented. To this day -- more than eight decades after it was created primarily to fight the menace posed to America by moonshiners and other scofflaws trying to avoid payment of federal taxes on cigarettes -- ATF remains the red-headed stepchild in the federal law enforcement family.
First the good news. As a direct result of an internal investigation of Fast and Furious conducted over the past year by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice (ATF’s parent bureaucracy), undertaken at the direction of Attorney General Eric Holder and released last week, two senior officials at the Justice Department and ATF resigned. The report identified several others for possible sanctions; and the officials in Arizona directly responsible for the botched operation, including the presidentially-appointed U.S. Attorney, had resigned earlier.
The fact that heads rolled as a result of the Inspector General’s report represents unusually clear action by the government to hold accountable individuals responsible for serious mistakes. Holder deserves credit for taking these steps, though he is unlikely to receive many kudos during a hotly contested national campaign. By comparison, not a single federal employee lost their job as a result of the Waco tragedy.
The Fast and Furious report also correctly identifies a number of policy and process miscues that characterized the operation, from its inception in the field to the failure to fully and timely apprise top Department officials of its results and problems.
Now the bad news. ATF remains leaderless and in disarray internally. Ultimately, blame for this continuing and serious problem rests with the two houses of Congress, and with the current President and his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush.