Eric Holder, Contempt of Congress, and Fast and Furious: What You Need to Know

The scandal that started it, how executive privilege works, and what might come next in the House investigation

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Attorney General Eric Holder testifies at a February House hearing about Fast and Furious. (Reuters)

What is Fast and Furious?

For years, the U.S. government ran an elaborate "gunwalking" operation on the Mexican border. It was a high-stakes sting operation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- a part of the Justice Department -- opted not to stop purchases of weapons that it suspected were intended for smuggling across the border by traffickers. The goal was to let "straw buyers" purchase the guns and move them to large-scale traffickers, but to stop the weapons before they moved across the border. It's a method that law enforcement agencies have used for some time -- the ATF was doing it at least as far back as 2006. The specific operation called "Fast and Furious" dates to 2009 and was apparently initiated by an ATF agent in Phoenix.

Did it work?

Not really -- Justice can't point to a single instance of a major boss the operation took down. But as one might imagine, the ATF was unable to keep track of all of the guns. In fact, the agency managed to lose track of some 2,000 guns. Those weapons were later connected to various violent crimes. Most notably, two were found at the scene after a Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry was killed in a firefight on December 10, 2010 with suspected illegal immigrants in Arizona (it's unclear whether one of the guns fired the bullet that killed him). Reports following that murder revealed that the guns had been part of a tracking operation.

Is anyone defending Fast and Furious?

Not really. In early 2011, the Justice Department wrote in a letter to Congress that no guns had been intentionally allowed to "walk," which it says was based on statements from ATF officials. That letter was retracted when it became clear that it was wrong. There's now a consensus that the operation was botched, but two questions remain. First, who approved it -- was Fast and Furious the work of a rogue ATF, or did Attorney General Eric Holder (or perhaps even President Obama) know of or approve it? Second, has there been an attempt to mislead Congress about the operation through a cover-up? On the first question, the department insists that only the ATF's Phoenix office approved the sting. At some point, however, the U.S. Attorney in Phoenix became aware, as did the acting director of the ATF. Both were forced to resign in August 2011 after Issa uncovered emails showing they'd been briefed. Justice says it's not trying to cover anything up, noting that it has turned over 7,600 documents and that Holder has testified before Congress nine times about Fast and Furious.

What happened Wednesday?

Darrell Issa, a California Republican who heads the House Oversight and Government Committee, has been demanding further documents and threatening to try to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress if he didn't turn them over (more on that later). So Wednesday morning, acting on Holder's request, Obama asserted executive privilege in response to a request from Holder. In a letter to Obama, Holder argues that the documents Issa is requesting aren't really related to Fast and Furious, since they post-date it, and that releasing them would compromise confidentiality within the executive branch. The letter came after negotiations late Tuesday -- in which Holder offered to release some documents in return for dropping the contempt proceedings -- failed. Issa, however, was unswayed by Obama's assertion and went forward with a vote in the Oversight Committee. The committee voted in favor of holding Holder in contempt by a 23-17 margin, along party lines.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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