Slow on the draw on Fast and Furious?

Let’s talk about Fast and Furious, the undercover operation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives let U.S. gun dealers in the Southwest sell assault-style rifles to “straw” purchasers in hopes of tracing the weapons to, and thereby disrupting, major smuggling operations delivering arms to Mexican drug cartels.

The operation caused a lot of dissent among ATF agents because preventing guns from getting into the hands of the increasingly violent Mexican cartels is one of its jobs. Why would the government want to facilitate the very thing it is trying to prevent?

Furthermore, on Dec. 14 , a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, Brian Terry, was killed in a shootout in Arizona at which two AK-47s sold under the Fast and Furious program were found. Angry ATF whistleblowers came forward to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and news of the operation gone awry leaked out in February.

Conservatives have alleged that The Post has ignored this story because the paper’s editorial board, or more generally Post reporters, are liberal and pro-gun-control. The more outrageous conservative critics have even accused Post reporters of somehow being complicit in Terry’s death because an award-winning series The Post published in December, “The Hidden Life of Guns,” did not reveal Operation Fast and Furious and its missteps.

I have looked at all of the Post coverage, including December’s series, and the 16 stories The Post published between Jan. 31 and July 27 this year that were wholly or in part about Fast and Furious (all can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.). I have talked to the reporters and editors in charge of this coverage.

I think the conservative critics’ charges are unsubstantiated.

The Post was one of the first news outlets in the country, on Feb. 1, to break the news of the connection between Fast and Furious guns and Terry’s death. And a full report on the operation and its many faults, by staff writer Sari Horwitz, published on July 26, is one of the two best stories to date on the subject.

To be fair, The Post can be faulted in the early months of this year, after its Feb. 1 story, for being a bit tardy in pursuing Fast and Furious stories. Other news outlets, particularly CBS News, the Los Angeles Times and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, advanced the stories in March, getting more details on what was fast becoming a cause celebre among conservatives who viewed it as a classic case of misguided anti-gun efforts by the government.

And I think there’s more reporting to be done on who in the upper reaches of the Justice Department knew of Fast and Furious and whether they were properly overseeing it.

Conservative skeptics have also suggested that The Post somehow colluded with the ATF in its “Hidden Life of Guns” series last year. That is baseless. Some former and current ATF officials did grant interviews, but the agency refused many requests for information, and The Post had to get much of its data through Freedom of Information Act requests and from other government organizations.

Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations, oversaw the eight-part “Hidden Life” series written by four reporters — David S. Fallis, Cheryl W. Thompson, James Grimaldi and Horwitz. Leen said that he and the reporters who wrote the Southwest border part of that series, Grimaldi and Horwitz, never heard of, or had even an inkling of, the top-secret Fast and Furious effort until indictments in the case were announced in late January in Phoenix by U.S. attorneys and the ATF.

After the series — which took a year to report and write — appeared, Grimaldi and Horwitz took time off during the December holidays and then went on to other stories.

Said Grimaldi: “We’ve had major and minor stories on Fast and Furious and they’ve been produced by investigative, national and local reporters. We broke the news that Fast and Furious guns were linked to Agent Terry’s death; we’ve done the [July 26 story] explaining what went wrong; we’ve explained it in the context for the fight over a new ATF director . . . and we’ve followed major elements of the investigations” undertaken by Sen. Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

“In hindsight,” Grimaldi continued, “we always might have done things differently, but given our shrinking space and resources, I honestly am not sure we could have produced more on this story.”

No news outlet covers every story perfectly. Nor do they reach the conclusions that ideologues on the left or right want. But The Post has acquitted itself well on Fast and Furious.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@
washpost.com
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