Fast, furious and way off the mark

The gun-running operation called Fast and Furious went bad when federal agents decided to let low-level traffickers go in hopes of catching bigger fish in the Mexican drug cartels. A similar mistake seems to have plagued the congressional investigation into this debacle.

A clear-eyed view of the evidence in the case has always pointed to a series of terrible decisions by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials in Phoenix that were not authorized by responsible officials in Washington — decisions that allowed thousands of guns to flow across the Mexican border, two of which were found at the scene of a border patrol agent's murder. That's largely what a lengthy report by the Justice Department's inspector general found.

That's not to say the operation doesn't represent a major failing for the Justice Department; some higher-ups are deservedly faulted for having failed to ask enough questions about what should have been red flags, particularly given the problems exposed during a similar, though somewhat less foolhardy, operation during the George W. Bush administration. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. reassigned 17 major officials associated with the case pending possible disciplinary action; two of them have now resigned. Indeed, the inspector general's findings, made after a careful examination of thousands of pages of documents, including some the White House has sought to shield from Congress, should be a major black eye for the Obama administration.

Or at least it would be, if not for the overreaching of House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and other Republicans who made the congressional investigation into the operation an effort to bring down Mr. Holder or even the president himself. In his zeal to turn the scandal into a personal vendetta against Mr. Holder, Congressman Issa took the nearly unprecedented step of holding the nation's attorney general in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over internal Justice Department documents the chairman claimed would show evidence of a White House coverup. In the fevered imaginings inside the chairman's committee room, Fast and Furious was a secret Obama administration plot to stoke violence and persuade the American public to back stricter gun control laws. Not surprisingly, the inspector general's report found no evidence to back that up, and no evidence that Mr. Holder — much less President Barack Obama — even knew about this operation until after the fact.

Mr. Issa assumed his committee chairmanship with the claim that the Obama administration was the most corrupt in history, and in his effort to find evidence to support that claim, he has too often allowed speculation to substitute for facts. He appears to have learned no lessons from this report; he called it a vindication of his efforts because it pointed to some degree of culpability by Mr. Holder's "inner circle," and in any case, he is off to chasing his next hobgoblin, the notion that Mr. Obama has a Nixonesque enemies list. No doubt he will persuade some members of his committee to go along with the idea that another half-baked political witch hunt somehow serves the national interest. But for the public, the lesson to be learned from this debacle may be simply not to pay attention to his ravings anymore.

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