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Darrell Issa’s Fast & Frivolous

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Smart v. Stupid

Darrell Issa’s Fast & Frivolous

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee
    Gage Skidmore/FlickrRep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee

Almost everyone is now critical of the bait-gun programs conducted to stop smuggling of U.S. guns to Mexico. The most well-known of these is Fast and Furious, an unfortunate and self-important name of the kind favored by “the Feds.”

But is the idea of using bait guns a good one or a bad one? And is using bait to catch criminals unusual? No matter what you think about the rightness of the tactic, using various kinds of bait in organized crime, drug, and conspiracy investigations is a common—and proven—method. Use of bait guns is more unusual than using money or drugs as bait, but it is hardly unheard of.

Bait: A crucial investigator's tool 

Bait guns are primarily sold by informants as a way of making a straw-purchase case (where someone buys guns intending the transfer them to someone who can’t legally own them.)

The fact that about 2,000 bait guns were part of Fast and Furious and about 300 were lost (more hyperbolically described as “gun-walking”) is not particularly competent, but not particularly notable either. Generally, when bait is lost, all of it is gone. Three hundred represents 15 percent of the bait guns from this investigation.

When criminal bait is lost, some guns end up in gun crimes; some money is used to fund fraud; and some drugs wind up overdosing junkies. Still most of it serves the important function of catching bad guys. Lost bait doesn’t cause these bad things to happen. It simply supplants the other ready supply.

Smuggling U.S. guns to Mexico widespread

Without Fast and Furious, Mexican drug cartels would not be unarmed. Hardly. According to the 2010 report by the U.S. organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 75 percent of the guns used in crimes in Mexico were originally purchased in the United States. They also cited an ATF statistic: 19,000 guns bought at U.S. dealers were directly tied to crimes in Mexico. Forty percent of these were bought in Texas alone, where it is dead-easy to buy guns for “export.”

Perhaps hundreds of thousands of guns may have been purchased in the United States and smuggled into Mexico. The Mayors Against Illegal Guns identified 19,000 from three years of records. In the years prior, the ATF was prevented by Congress from revealing the numbers. In 2011, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer told Congress that of 94,000 guns recovered from Mexican cartels, 70 percent – some 64,000 – came from the United States.

The problem is so bad that Congress approves $37.5 million annually for the ATF to stop it. The other option, of course would be to say “guns don’t kill people,” and do nothing.

Fast & Furious didn’t kill Brian Terry

There is no evidence that a bait gun was used to kill Border Patrol Agt. Brian Terry. Weapons from the bait-gun program were found at the scene and could have been used. But anyone who says bait guns were used to kill the agent is lying. If we’re speculating, one could just as easily speculate that these guns were on their way to Mexico. As planned.

Even if one of these guns was used in the shootout, the importance of that is largely symbolic. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has made the claim that without bait guns drug dealers would not have had access to this sort of "high quality" weapon. But drug dealers have unlimited money and unlimited access to any weapon for sale to American straw buyers, including every kind of military-style weapon. The most popular guns are new AR-15 and AK-47-spec. weapons. You can find either one in any gun store in any of the border states.

Beyond that, Issa's pretension that the guns (and by association the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) killed Agt. Terry is a sharp departure from ordinary conservative rhetoric about guns, which holds that people using the guns are responsible for their misuse as a tool of murder. Guns don't kill people, people do… right? (As far as I know, there is no political expedience exception.)

In this case, whatever border criminals Agt. Terry encountered killed him. It is worth remembering that ATF's intention and mission was stopping those same criminals. It is also worth remembering that over 180 ATF agents have been killed in the line of duty and that as recently as last December an ATF agent was killed by friendly fire during a robbery.

Panel not investigating Terry’s death

Despite frequently invoking the slain agent’s name when the cameras are rolling, Issa and the Republicans on the House Oversight Committee are not investigating the death of Brian Terry. No recent activities of the committee have focused on this event.

Instead, Issa’s current effort is attempting to draw a conspiracy from a letter that the Department of Justice sent that contained incorrect information about guns lost in the program. But in what U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) called “secret testimony” she and other committee members described prior statements by then-ATF Director Kenneth Melson that clear DOJ officials of deliberately misinforming the committee.

Issa has refused to allow Melson's testimony, given in private a small number of the committee, to be published. He has also repeatedly refused to allow Melson to testify in public before the full committee or to be questioned by it. This is despite requests by several committee members including the ranking minority member, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

And then there is Issa himself

Darrell Issa is the congressman who famously earmarked highway dollars to a road where it only “coincidentally” increased the value of property he owned. In 2010, when Issa was appointed chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he said, “I want seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks [a year.]” He said he planned to investigate the Obama administration’s role in economic stimulus, bank bailouts and the collapse of housing prices. He promised to investigate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Countrywide Mortgage, Toyota, and steroids in baseball. He said he would look into “presidential earmarks” (there is no such thing) and presidential grants (there aren’t many.)

Two years later, at election time, it looks like Chairman Issa is staring “Epic Fail!” straight in the eye. His political job—to paint the Obama administration as a criminal and hypocritical enterprise—is left with this: a botched ATF initiative that relied on proven investigative techniques. A single “scandal” that was in response to a real and widespread crime involving international drug cartels. And just one “investigation” of a program that began during the George W. Bush administration.

For Darrell Issa, what a letdown it must be.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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