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Who will pay price for Fast and Furious?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
October 13, 2011 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Attorney General Eric Holder faces criticism over Fast and Furious, but he says he was unaware of details of the gun operation.
Attorney General Eric Holder faces criticism over Fast and Furious, but he says he was unaware of details of the gun operation.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Dead Mexicans are real scandal in Fast and Furious gun operation
  • He says ATF let guns "walk" into Mexico to track cartels and they turned up at crime scenes
  • He says attorney general seems to be skirting responsibility for misbegotten scheme
  • Navarrette: Rep. Darrell Issa right to investigate what's an injustice to Mexican victims

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist

(CNN) -- Let's understand what all the fuss is about with the Obama administration's ill-conceived "Fast and Furious" operation -- or rather what it should be about. It's not about assigning blame, or playing "gotcha," or covering up mistakes. It's not about Republican critics forcing top administration officials to resign, or those officials spinning whatever fantastic narratives are necessary to avoid doing so. It's about who pays the price when government agencies make bad decisions.

When field agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives deliberately allowed some 2,000 guns to "walk" into Mexico from gun shops in Arizona as part of a harebrained and hazardous scheme to track Mexican drug cartels, and then lost track of the cargo, they set in motion a deadly series of events. Before long, guns from the operation were showing up at crime scenes on both sides of the border.

When one government agency screws up, other agencies sometimes pay the price. One of the weapons even showed up at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

But by far, the group that paid the heaviest price for this doomed initiative is the Mexican people. There is no way to know how many Mexicans died at the hands of criminals armed with weapons supplied courtesy of the ATF, but Carlos Canino, an ATF agent at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, reportedly testified to congressional investigators that Fast and Furious guns showed up at nearly 200 crime scenes.

This scandal is about dead Mexicans.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

As politicians in Washington have been known to ask: Where's the outrage? There isn't much of it, and what little there is seems to be reserved for political adversaries.

Republicans, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have expressed outrage that the administration spent months stonewalling an investigation into the program by refusing to honor requests for information.

More recently, they're questioning whether Attorney General Eric Holder might have committed perjury when -- after being asked by the committee in May 2011 when he had learned of the operation -- he responded: "I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks."

Internal e-mails obtained by CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson -- who months ago was the first reporter to break this story on a major network with the help of ATF whistle-blowers -- suggest otherwise. The e-mails show that Holder was given regular briefings on the program as far back as July 2010. That would appear to contradict his testimony to Congress.

When Attkisson asked Justice Department officials about the apparent contradiction, their initial response was to claim that the e-mails in question were about a different operation that started before Holder took office. Then they shifted gears and claimed that Holder misunderstood the question. He did know about Fast and Furious, they said, just not the details. More recently, the administration has shifted gears once again and apparently decided that the best defense is a good offense.

Not surprisingly, Attkisson is now intensely unpopular with both the Justice Department and White House. The reporter told radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham that -- as she worked the story -- a woman from the Justice Department (whom she identified as Tracy Schmaler) "was just yelling at me" and that someone from the White House (whom she identified as Eric Schultz) "screamed at me and cussed at me."

Last week, Holder went on the attack. He lashed out at Issa and other Republican critics of his handling of the operation, charging them with using "irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric." And he urged people in both parties to repudiate such language "in the strongest possible terms."

Holder also insisted: "My testimony was truthful and accurate. ... I have no recollection of knowing about Fast and Furious or of hearing its name prior to the public controversy about it. Prior to early 2011, I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation."

At this rate, who knows what the attorney general's next strategy will be? We're going to find out. Issa has subpoenaed Holder to appear before his committee again.

Bully for Issa. We need to get to the bottom of this scandal, and if the administration isn't cooperating, there is all the more reason to keep digging. That also goes for Attkisson and CBS News, who have done first-rate work.

Frankly, I am surprised by Holder's use of words such as "irresponsible" and "inflammatory." What could be more irresponsible than allowing weapons to be smuggled into a foreign country, weapons that then wind up killing the citizens of that country? And what could be more inflammatory than appearing to cover up such an operation and distancing oneself from it as staffers allegedly yell, scream and curse at reporters who are just doing their jobs?

And what was the purpose of these alleged theatrics? Was all this huffing and puffing intended to get Attkisson to back off the story? Brilliant.

As a former reporter, let me give the administration a tip: Attacking journalists is usually as effective in stamping out a story as gasoline is in putting out a fire.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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