WASHINGTON -- In 2006, when George W. Bush was president, federal law enforcement officials came up with a spectacularly dumb idea: Allow powerful firearms purchased in the United States to "walk" across the Mexico border, where authorities would trace the weapons and eventually nab the big-time criminals who supply guns to the ultra-violent Mexican drug cartels.
It is no surprise that most of the weapons promptly disappeared.
But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, undeterred by failure, went back to the "gun-walking" technique again the following year -- and used it once more in 2009, after President Obama had taken office, in the tragic fiasco known as Operation Fast and Furious.
These are the facts, and they don't cover any Justice Department officials with glory. But neither do they remotely justify the partisan witch hunt by House Republicans who threaten, without legitimate cause, to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Obama has responded by asserting executive privilege -- effectively shutting down the inquisition.
The House wants to go fishing in a vast sea of documents, some of which relate to ongoing investigations. As a believer in sunshine and disclosure, I don't much care for questionable claims of executive privilege. But I like the politically motivated sideshow the GOP is staging even less.
Holder called the contempt threat "an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action ... an election-year tactic intended to distract attention."
His frustration -- especially with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee -- is understandable. Holder has acknowledged that Fast and Furious was a mistake. He has turned over more than 7,600 documents relating to the botched operation. He has personally testified on Capitol Hill about the matter on nine occasions.
Indeed, Fast and Furious was a grievous error. All told, suspects were allowed to purchase more than 2,000 firearms -- including AK-47s, .50-caliber sniper rifles, powerful handguns -- and fewer than 700 were ever seen again. Of the weapons that were recovered, many were found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States. But even as it became clear that Fast and Furious guns were being used as instruments of mayhem, the operation continued.
Then in December 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with suspected illegal immigrants in Arizona. Two assault rifles found at the scene were identified as Fast and Furious weapons; it could not be determined whether one of them fired the bullet that killed Terry.
In testimony before Issa's committee, ATF agent John Dodson, a critic of the operation, stated the obvious: "I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest."
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group