Scandals are a lot like an illness. Some are major. Some are minor. Some are terminal. Some are not. Severity – and survival – frequently depends upon how long the issue is ignored and how effective is the treatment. But like a terminal illness, scandals have stages. Let’s take a look at how these apply to the ATF, shall we? [H/T to Neiman Reports for the concept.]
Stage One: The Trigger. Scandals rarely spring, full-blown from the head of Zeus, fully-developed and rich in detail. There’s always some kind of trigger. In the case of Fast and Furious, I guess you could say it was the creation of a whistle-blower website for the ATF, following the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Terry, from a gun that came from the Fast and Furious debacle.
Stage Two: The Focus. You can’t have a scandal without something/someone upon which to focus. With Bill Clinton, it was Monica Lewinski. Or that dress. In this case, the focus fell on U.S. Border Patrol Agent Terry, when he was shot by drug smugglers along our Southern border. Murder is a crime. Murders that involve drugs add an element of organized crime to the mix. But when we learned that some of the guns recovered at the murder scene had been allowed into Mexico because of the ATF’s Fast and Furious program, the murder became the flashpoint of the investigation, and the driving force behind Congressional interest.
In times past, that’s all it would take for a story to “go national.” Scandal + Flashpoint = Coverage. But today, the highly partisan nature of political coverage and the left-leaning sympathies of the mainstream media add one more criteria to the formula, a factor that sets the bar almost impossibly high. That factor is “can we find a way to rationalize this to avoid blaming a Progressive.” While under the old formula the media would have been all over this with a Republican in office, they are considerably slower to warm to the task with a Democrat in the White House.
In another time, the complicit behavior of the media would have been enough to sink the story for good. But with the advent of blogging on the Internet came a new wave of “citizen journalists” who bear no allegiance to “Big Media” and have no ties to the movers and shakers in the halls of power. While a single news site (DrudgeReport.com) broke the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the ATF’s screw-ups were revealed by a number of blogs, with more and more piling on every day. Eventually, the mainstream media was essentially forced to take on the story, if only to attempt to soft-pedal it and try and make it appear less than it is.
Stage Three: Denials and Evasions. Watergate taught us some important lessons: Follow the Money. What did you know and when did you know it? And, It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Human nature dictates that “Denial” is possibly the most basic instinct, when your hand is caught in the cookie jar. Logic tells us that the wisest course of action is to come clean, take your lumps and move on. But power combined with resentment towards criticism combine to short-circuit logic and encourage evasive action.
But there are two kinds of denials – in the court of public opinion, and within the legal system. Denying culpability in public generally gets you pilloried only by the opposing political camp. But lying to Congress, a Grand Jury, or a Judge can result in criminal charges that stick. When you begin denials, as the story comes out, more denials and evasions are necessary. Once you reach a tipping point, it becomes harder for you to tell the truth and expose your denials as lies, than to continue to lie and cover-up. The minute you’re required to testify before a legal entity, you’ve crossed the line into conspiracy to hinder prosecution.
In the ATF case, the highest law official in the land, Attorney General Eric Holder crossed that line in testimony to Congress when he evaded the question about when he learned of Fast and Furious. Weeks later, White House emails showed that he was kept informed months before he admitted to knowledge of the program.
Stage Four: The Validation. It’s said that it’s all fun and games to poke the wild animal, until someone gets hurt. Investigations, rumors, innuendoes, and the like are all well and good, but until the story is validated by some authority, it’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Validation usually takes the form of an official investigation. But who investigates the investigators, or to be more specific, when it’s law enforcement in the crosshairs, who investigates the cops? In the case of Fast and Furious, part of the response of the Obama Administration has been to claim that the ATF is “conducting an internal investigation,” in other words investigating themselves.
Aside from the obvious conflict of interest, the problem in this case surround questions of just how high the scandal goes within the Obama administration, and how broad it might be, involving other agencies and departments. To date, evidence exposed by Congressional oversight committees implicate not only the ATF, but the FBI, CIA, US Border Patrol, ICE, the State Department, Homeland Security, the Justice Department as a whole, and the leaders of each department, specifically Eric Holder, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton and, perhaps, Barack Obama himself.
Stage Five: Definition. Now things go to Code Red/Critical. As the official investigations expand, we begin to see a clearer picture of who’s involved, what their roles are, and what the ultimate penalties may be for the guilty parties. In this stage, a highly-politicized environment acts like the atmosphere inside an armory – one tiny spark can cause the entire room to erupt with explosive results.
Typically, the guilty parties or the ones who stand the most to lose try to contain the damage. In the case of the ATF, a trial balloon was floating about last week from the Justice Department, speculating on simply dissolving the ATF. Had Holder proposed something like that last year, it might have been enough to contain the scandal. Today, it’s too little, too late.
It is also a red flag that suggests the Obama White House realizes that this scandal has legs and could conceivably bring down the entire Administration. It is also a likely reason we’ve not seen much of Hillary Clinton or Janet Napolitano in the news lately, as they would be fools to not try and distance themselves from the ATF mess.
Stage Six: The Punishment. This is where the fireworks start. Impeachment. Resignations. Criminal trials. Jail time. Once a scandal gets it’s head, it becomes all but impossible for anyone to control it. Like a fire that rages out of control, the only course of action is to allow it to burn itself out, and perhaps try and protect some of the surrounding territories.
We are not here yet with the ATF scandal. But we could be getting closer than you think, should one or two more insiders decide to cut deals to save their own skins. Add to this the election cycle and the desire of the party in power to retain power and you have a situation where a scandal-weakened President may soon find his base, his natural allies, and his party in full-scale revolt.
Stage Seven: The Aftermath. Pendulums swing both ways. When the momentum swings away from an administration, it’s not at all unusual for a pendulum to swing far in the other direction. Post-Watergate, Congress attempted to gut the President’s power, and put into place rules designed to prevent Presidents from using the FBI and CIA as their own, personal police (and secret police) forces. But the Law of Unintended Consequences is a harsh and unforgiving mistress.
These same laws designed to prevent Presidential misconduct tied the hands of the FBI and CIA from exchanging information, which lead to the intelligence failures that allowed 9/11 to occur. The Enron scandal begat Sorbanes-Oxley, which has spawned more, not less corporate shenanigans. This stage can best be summed up by the phrase “the cure is worse that the disease.”
This is also the time in which all the involved parties attempt to cash in, with book deals and attempts to rehabilitate their reputations in the public eye. It typically takes a decade or more for the self-aggrandizing fallout to subside so historians can ascertain a clearer picture of what really happened and why. One of the central questions in the Fast and Furious scandal that is yet to be resolved is “what was the motivation?” We may never know.
So we find ourselves at the cusp of an explosive scandal involving multiple Federal agencies and potentially, the White House itself. With the mistakes of the Nixon White House still a recent memory, will the Obama Administration engage in some course correction, come clean, take their punishment and move forward. If history is any predictor of future events, that’s incredibly unlikely. But tomorrow is a new day. And like a new batch of revelations. Stay tuned.