The Fever Spreads

As the House gets ready for the contempt-of-Congress vote aimed at the Attorney General tomorrow, the conflict gets more and more remote from the original concerns over the “Fast and Furious” operation.

The National Rifle Association, always happy to strike out at the “jack-booted government thugs” of the ATF, at Eric Holder, and at Barack Obama, has now officially come out for the contempt-of-Congress resolution as a key vote that will affect their ratings of candidates. This move is already getting the attention of House Democrats in vulnerable districts (e.g., Utah’s Jim Matheson). I mean, who wants to take on the NRA when all you have to do to avoid that is to support full disclosure of information that’s being hidden for no obvious reason, right? In any event, this development will scramble a previously clear media perception that the whole brouhaha is strictly partisan politics.

Meanwhile, the maestro of the whole show, Darrell Issa, continues to ever-more-aggressively pursue the nutso idea that Fast and Furious was a botched operation to boost support for broad gun control measures (measures, of course, that no one in the Obama administration has shown any signs of offering). Now that reliable contributor to the Noise Machine, Investor’s Business Daily, has endorsed the “gun control theory,” so we are off to the races.

Back on Planet Earth, Fortune muddied the waters today with a long investigative report by Katherine Eban suggesting that “Fast and Furious” was not actually a “gun walking” operation at all, and that Issa’s entire investigation is based on the fruits of internal ATF factionalism and grudge-settling, now compounded by CYA defensive measures from higher-ups in the Justice Department.

Quite simply, there’s a fundamental misconception at the heart of the Fast and Furious scandal. Nobody disputes that suspected straw purchasers under surveillance by the ATF repeatedly bought guns that eventually fell into criminal hands. Issa and others charge that the ATF intentionally allowed guns to walk as an operational tactic. But five law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious tell Fortune that the ATF had no such tactic. They insist they never purposefully allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Just the opposite: They say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn….

How Fast and Furious reached the headlines is a strange and unsettling saga, one that reveals a lot about politics and media today. It’s a story that starts with a grudge, specifically [ATF agent] Dodson’s anger at [Dodson supervisor and “Fast and Furious” overseer] Voth. After the terrible murder of agent Terry, Dodson made complaints that were then amplified, first by right-wing bloggers, then by CBS. Rep. Issa and other politicians then seized those elements to score points against the Obama administration, which, for its part, has capitulated in an apparent effort to avoid a rhetorical battle over gun control in the run-up to the presidential election.

Time for House Republicans, and their soon-to-be-developing rump faction of Democratic allies, to take an aspirin and let the fever subside.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.