When Ignorance Is the Best Excuse

Eric Holder's only defense of the ATF's "Fast and Furious" program is that he didn't know it existed.


When Rupert Murdoch went before the British Parliament yesterday to testify about the News of the World hacking scandal, he did not attempt to downplay the severity of his employees' crimes. Rather, he apologized for the damage done and then said, "I didn't know of it." When asked who, then, was responsible for the culture of criminality that had developed at News of the World, Murdoch told Parliament, "The people I trusted and the people they trusted."

Even longtime Murdoch haters had to concede that the mogul's response was brilliant. If he's telling the truth, the News Corp. owner is guilty only of having trusted the wrong people to oversee his British papers (such as News International chief and former World editor Rebekah Brooks), and of never checking in on things himself. Luckily for Rupert, being a disinterested executive is not a crime. Unforunately for the staff of the shuttered News, this means their boss quite possibly ignored Britain's largest circulation newspaper into the grave.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Attorney General Eric Holder and his protectors in the Justice Department are using the same defense to keep the DOJ chief from being implicated in the increasingly sordid ATF gunrunner scandal.

Earlier this year CBS discovered that the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Attorneys office in Phoenix had allowed known gunrunners to buy heavy arms, including several .50 caliber rifles, from border state gun shops and take them to Mexico. The program became public when U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry turned up dead near Rio Rico, Arizona, killed by two assault rifles that the ATF had practically shepherded into cartel possession.

That the U.S. government had a hand in Terry's death wasn't just news to his grieving family, it was allegedly news to the government as well.

When the House Oversight Committee began investigating the program, which was known as "Fast and Furious," it found that border state ATF agents wanted to make arrests related to the program, but were told not to do so. Earlier this month Congress found out why: The FBI and the DEA both had cartel informants whose cover would've allegedly been jeopardized had the ATF acted on its intelligence.  

This revelation means that three of the biggest enforcement agencies within the Department of Justice knew about a program that one DOJ spokesman described to me as "illegal" and "isolated." The one person who supposedly did not know is Holder. His first reaction to media reports about the gunrunner program was to "vehemently deny…that ATF has ever knowingly allowed weapons to get into the hands of suspected gunrunners for Mexico's drug cartels." His second and enduring response was to plead ignorance.

"Holder said he became aware of the ATF agents concerns about certain tactics used in Fast and Furious earlier this year," a DOJ spokesperson told me last week. "That's when he asked the IG to investigate those concerns." Holder said the same thing in testimony before the House in March.

After several months of hearings and countless requests for documents and intra-department communications, there's still no evidence that Holder knew about the program before the rest of us did. Holder's ignorance is supported by acting ATF Director Ken Melson, who told Oversight that it "would be unusual for other Justice Department officials in Washington to know the details and that the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix was overseeing the program."

The House Oversight Committee is now trying to find out why. "It's hard for us to believe that all throughout that year-plus process and even as this program fell apart and became a problem for [the Department of] Justice, that nobody should have told [Holder] something," Oversight Chair Rep. Darrell Issa told Fox Business Channel host Lou Dobbs last week.

While there's some evidence that the people Holder trusted—his own Rebekah Brooks, you could say—knew about Fast and Furious, Holder appears to have been genuinely oblivious to the development and implementation of a project that has stained the U.S.-Mexico border blood-red.

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine.