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Shine a light on gun operation

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (May 9, 2010)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (May 9, 2010) Credit: NBC Universal/GETTY IMAGES

The probe into Operation Fast and Furious, a bungled investigation of gunrunning to Mexico from Arizona that may have contributed to the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, is revealing what's seems more and more like a cover-up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The latest development is wiretap evidence reported yesterday by CBS News suggesting that there were three, not two, ATF-connected weapons found near the body of agent Brian Terry. The Department of Justice must respond by providing more information to Congress, and fast.

Fast and Furious was designed to track guns that "straw buyers" purchased in Phoenix area shops in 2009. The goal was to trace the guns and make cases against traffickers supplying firepower to deadly drug cartels in Mexico. But agents quickly lost track of the weapons and many turned up at crime scenes, including the December shootout in Arizona where border agent Terry died.

The operation was something of a departure for the ATF, which generally moves to take illegal guns off the street as quickly as possible. In this new gambit, however, ATF agents couldn't follow the path of many of the 2,000 or so AK-47s, high-caliber rifles and other guns that were purchased in the United States and later used by criminals in Mexico.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House committee investigating the operation, said there's reason to believe the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration already knew the gunrunning kingpins the ATF was working to identify, and may even have had some of them on the payroll as informants. So there are two baseline questions crying out for answers in this nightmare, in which the ATF apparently didn't know what the FBI and DEA were doing. First, a decade after 9/11, why haven't federal law enforcement agencies heeded one great lesson of that attack, which is that it's vital they communicate with one another? Second, how much lawbreaking should federal officials knowingly allow to occur in their pursuit of bigger fish?

The ATF's acting director, Kenneth Melson, who has been demoted, canceled a scheduled appearance this summer before the committee in which he was to appear with Justice Department lawyers. He hired his own lawyer and testified in private. The next day, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said, "the evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons, but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaged in such activities."

They alleged a cover-up, which Justice Department officials have denied. Yet, the story continues to read like a screenplay that still has an unfolding and twisting plot. Holder has failed to answer the key question -- what did the DEA and FBI know and when they know it? -- saying only that "such information, to the extent it exists, should not simply be turned over to the committee." Holder says he wants to protect what he calls "ongoing investigations." That's a dodge. It's time to come clean.