-- A majority of Arizona's county sheriffs on Friday called upon President Obama to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the government's botched gun-smuggling case known as Operation Fast and Furious.
At a Phoenix news conference, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said the sting operation, which allowed an estimated 2,000 firearms to reach narcotics cartels in Mexico, was a betrayal that should lead to the removal of Attorney General Eric Holder and possible criminal charges against those responsible.
"I believe that this is a much larger scandal than what took place in Watergate," said Babeu, who is president of the Arizona Sheriff's Association.
The Fast and Furious case, based in Arizona and carried out by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was designed to catch high-level drug lords responsible for the illegal transport of guns into Mexico.
Weapons were sold legally to front buyers who, in some cases, were placed under surveillance in hopes of tracking the firearms to cartel operatives. Instead, most of the guns were smuggled into Mexico unfettered, where they have been traced to dozens of crime scenes.
ATF whistleblowers first exposed the practice after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a December shootout with banditos near Nogales, Ariz., involving a pair of semi-automatic rifles that traced back to Operation Fast and Furious. Their revelations led to congressional hearings in which agents and Justice Department officials have been criticized for evasive and dishonest testimony.
To date, the scandal has forced the replacement of ATF administrator Ken Melson; reassignment of the bureau's top Arizona agent, William Newell; and the resignation of Dennis Burke, former U.S. Attorney for Arizona.
Obama and Holder have asserted that they were not aware that federal agents allowed hundreds of guns to "walk" into Mexico until the whistleblower complaints were made public this year.
"He's (Holder) indicated that he was not aware of what was happening in Fast and Furious; certainly I was not," Obama said during a Thursday news conference. "And I think both he and I would have been very unhappy if somebody had suggested that guns were allowed to pass through that could have been prevented by the United States of America.
"He has assigned an Inspector General to look into how exactly this happened, and I have complete confidence in him and I've got complete confidence in the process to figure out who, in fact, was responsible for that decision and how it got made."
But Babeu said he suspects a cover-up has protected high-level officials in the Justice Department and White House. He also said that he believes Holder was not forthright in testimony before a congressional committee.
"The fact that he knew about this before the murder of Agent Terry should haunt him," Babeu said. "Eric Holder, in my opinion, should resign or he needs to be fired. . . . Nobody in America is above the law, including Eric Holder, including President Obama. There is no king."
During a news conference Friday in Washington, Holder defended his testimony as truthful and accurate. In a letter to key Democrats and Republicans in Congress who oversee Justice Department issues, he repeated that he was not told about Operation Fast and Furious before details became public this year.
"I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation and it is my understanding that the former United States Attorney for the district of Arizona and the former acting director and deputy director of ATF have told Congress that they, themselves, were unaware of the tactics employed," he wrote.
In his letter, Holder said he felt compelled to comment because of "irresponsible and inflammatory" statements made about the case by a House member who said those involved with Fast and Furious should be regarded as "accessories to murder."
Although Holder did not identify the member of Congress, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., was quoted Wednesday in a Daily Caller story headlined, "Congressman: Obama admin may be accessory to murder with 'Fast and Furious'." "When you facilitate that and a murder or a felony occurs, you're called an accessory," Gosar said. "That means that there's criminal activity."
Apyrl Marie Fogel, communications director in Gosar's office, said the Daily Caller headline was "sensationalized" and the congressman merely meant that government officials should be held accountable, not criminally responsible, for the botched probe. She accused the attorney general of intentionally misrepresenting Gosar's position, and said his letter "further shows that Holder should resign."
Ten of Arizona's 15 sheriffs joined in the call for an independent counsel probe. The sheriffs, including Democrats and Republicans, said they were motivated by public-safety concerns, not political partisanship.
"I feel like we've been betrayed by our government," said Tom Sheahan, sheriff of Mohave County.
"We're in a fight for our country, our constitution and for our very lives," added Larry Dever, sheriff of Cochise County. "Who really is responsible for helping to arm the people we are fighting every day on the border?"