WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- A smoldering scandal is stalking the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama despite it being temporary obscured by budget battles and unemployment figures.
It's called Operation Fast and Furious, a botched gun-running sting along the Mexican border by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives that went decidedly wrong.
Wrong, as in a federal agent being killed by a weapon ATF allowed to be purchased by a gunrunner; wrong, as in dozens of crimes being committed with the trafficked firearms; wrong, as in what appears to be a botched attempt at coverup.
"The Justice Department has been less than forthcoming since Day One, so the revisions here are hardly surprising and the numbers will likely rise until the more than 1,000 guns that were allowed to fall into the hands of bad guys are recovered -- most likely years down the road," U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said after learning that 21 crimes in Mexico were apparently committed with the ATF trafficked weapons, not the 11 crimes the ATF previously conceded.
"What we're still waiting for are the answers to the other questions the attorney general failed to answer per our agreement. The cooperation of the attorney general and his staff is needed if we're ever going to get to the bottom of this disastrous policy and help the ATF and the department move forward."
Grassley, working with U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been holding the ATF and U.S. Justice Department to account with investigations and hearing, which have so far showed rank-and-file ATF agents opposed the program but were pressured by superiors to toe the line.
Operation Fast and Furious began in late 2009. The concept of the operation was to allow legal gun dealers near Arizona's border with Mexico sell firearms to suspected straw buyers, who could be traced to Mexican drug cartels so as to build large criminal cases against Mexican crime organizations.
Those crime organizations have launched a bloody battle for territory among themselves and against the Mexican government.
The ATF, which is under the control of the Justice Department, lost track of the weapons and traffickers. The situation then went from bad to worse. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed last December while trying to apprehend armed suspects. Attackers' guns found on the scene turned out to be among weapons the ATF allowed smugglers to purchase.
News reports later said it was learned that federal agents trying to apprehend gunrunners along the border had been told let them pass.
"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," an ATF agent said at a congressional hearing in June.
Amid the spotlight of congressional investigation, two top officials tied to Fast and Furious -- Dennis K. Burke, the U.S. attorney in Phoenix; and the ATF's acting chief Kenneth E. Melson -- resigned their positions.
The White House said it had no knowledge of the botched operation but e-mail messages obtained by news organizations last month indicated that three members of Obama's staff had received back-channel information on ATF anti-gun trafficking efforts.
The briefings were apparently given in July 2010 in e-mail to Kevin O'Reilly, director of North American Affairs at the National Security Council; Dan Restrepo, senior Latin American adviser and national security official Greg Gatjanis by ATF's Bill Newell, who at the time was the ATF special agent in charge of its Phoenix office, which ran Operation Fast and Furious.
To what extent the officials were eventually briefed specifically on Fast and Furious is unknown but disclosure of the e-mail messages is sure to fire suspicions on Capitol Hill that both the White House and the Justice Department knew more than they are disclosing.
Issa said his committee investigations on the program will continue to "ensure that blame isn't offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter than involved much higher levels of the Justice Department."
"We know we are being gamed and we think the time for the game should be up," he said.