By Fred Barbash and David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Even before President Barack Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder formally took office in 2009, the National Rifle Association stated that the new administration's secret "gun-control agenda" posed a clear danger to America's gun owners and the constitutional right to bear arms.
So after whistleblowers revealed a botched gun-running probe conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — "Operation Fast and Furious" - a top NRA official called it another "Watergate."
Here was what the NRA had long viewed as an out-of-control agency, in the thrall of a hostile president and attorney general, allowing weapons sold in the United States to find their way into Mexico. The reason, the NRA said in its literature, was that the administration wanted to boost statistics about guns flowing into Mexico to support a push for new laws to regulate American gun dealers.
It was another "Watergate," NRA Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre warned in a 2011 interview.
"This thing needs to be stamped out hard like a small fire in the forest before it turns into a raging forest fire," he said.
The NRA, one of America's most powerful interest groups, with four million members, has by now invested a year-and-a-half of energy and undetermined sums advancing the congressional investigation of Fast and Furious.
The NRA theory remains only a theory - without proof, and dismissed by an administration spokesman on Tuesday as "absurd." But the NRA's efforts have borne considerable fruit, including the ATF's reassignment of a half dozen or more officials involved in Fast and Furious. One in particular, the bureau's former Phoenix office head William Newell, had been singled out by the NRA as a gun-control enthusiast.
And Holder, the NRA's longtime nemesis, is facing a likely vote in the House of Representatives on Thursday that could make him the first U.S. attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress.
WARNING TO CANDIDATES
Last week, the NRA asserted its clout - albeit with little risk of failure in the Republican-controlled House - by informing members of Congress in no uncertain terms that the contempt vote matters.
"This is an issue of the utmost seriousness and the NRA will consider this vote in our future candidate evaluations," Chris Cox, the NRA's top lobbyist said in a letter to members.
Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of "The Politics of Gun Control," said that for the NRA, Fast and Furious was a "kind of a bloody shirt to underscore everything they believe is wrong with government gun policy." Plus, he said, "it gives them further grist for their membership in an election year."
In fact, the two members of Congress pursuing Holder most relentlessly need no NRA prodding. Both Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, are longtime NRA backers.
Both also believe in the NRA's Fast and Furious theory.
Speaking at this year's NRA convention, Issa said the administration had "never answered the question, 'What were they thinking of?' Could it be that what they really were thinking of was in fact to use this walking of guns in order to promote an assault-weapons ban?"
The NRA has featured Issa in advertising, using footage of his interrogations of Holder to bolster its accusation of "perjury" by the attorney general.
At the same April meeting, Grassley warned the NRA that Holder was inviting a contempt vote and with it a "high-stakes political conflict" between the legislative and executive branches.
LaPierre declined in an interview with Reuters to take credit for keeping the Fast and Furious probe alive. "The people I represent, gun owners and hunters, are really mad about this...They want the truth. They feel like they're being deceived, and they feel like there's a coverup going on."
But there's no doubt that the campaign by the NRA, with its vast network of gun clubs, has fueled that anger.
The NRA has prepared and sponsored a national television and Internet advertisement suggesting that Holder had committed perjury, showing footage of Fox news broadcasts on the probe and dramatic images of Issa grilling the attorney general. "Few presidents have faced this kind of crisis in confidence," the ad said. "Tell President Obama, 'Hold Holder Accountable.'"
NRA'S LONG WAR AGAINST ATF
The probe also has helped the NRA's long war against the ATF. A series of articles in the Washington Post in 2010 documented the success the NRA and the gun industry has had in limiting the agency's resources and legal tools.
At that time, the Post reported, the ATF had the same number of agents it had had four decades earlier - 2,500. In 2012, it had 2,508 agents.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA donates roughly $1 million annually to federal candidates. It spent $7.2 million for independent expenditures as well — ads for and against candidates - during the 2010 election cycle.
Operation Fast and Furious succeeded a discontinued Bush administration gun probe designed to trace weapons used by Mexican drug cartels.
In Fast and Furious, gun dealers along the U.S.-Mexican border were encouraged by the ATF to sell weapons to straw purchasers, who were then supposed to be tracked as they crossed the border. The tracking never happened, however, and the weapons showed up at crime scenes, most notably at the site of a fatal December 2010 shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Rio Rico, Arizona. An agency whistleblower exposed the operation to Grassley and other members of Congress.
Holder's refusal to turn over all documents requested by Issa's committee, claiming executive privilege, has only further convinced the NRA that the administration is hiding something. The organization is now pushing hard for the contempt citation.
A senior House Republican aide said that there will be strong Republican support for the contempt charge, even if it is not unanimous. The aide also predicted that "more than a handful" of Democrats would support a contempt charge.
"The NRA key vote was significant" in building House support leading up to Thursday's anticipated vote, the aide told Reuters.
The aide was referring to the NRA's announcement to every House member that it would record each lawmaker's vote and use it to decide whether to endorse individual members.
PRESSURE FROM DEMOCRAT LEADERSHIP
Democratic leadership is pressuring its members to vote against the contempt charge, aides said.
Much lobbying is focused on the 31 moderate House Democrats (mostly so-called Blue Dogs) who on June 3, 2011, wrote to Obama expressing concerns about Fast and Furious and urging the Justice Department to "promptly provide complete answers to all congressional inquiries on this issue." But the letter also noted that the investigation "should not be used as a platform for partisan criticism of the administration."
"In all honesty," said LaPierre, "the NRA tried to speak out and tried to honestly lead the way to the truth."
The whistleblowers "put their personal careers, they put their jobs at risk," he added, "And they're the real heroes. All NRA has tried to do all the way through on this was keep reminding and standing up for gun owners and the search for the truth."
The key to understanding the controversy, he said, was a statistic touted by the Obama administration: that 90 percent of the guns used by Mexican drug cartels are from the United States.
LaPierre said he thinks the number is false and probably closer to 16 percent, based on conversations with Bush administration officials.
"I really do believe that they facilitated a crime to make that 90 percent sound bite sound true when it was never true," he said.
Holder has dismissed such theories and testified that he was unaware of Fast and Furious until it got publicized.
But leading Republicans accept the NRA's version of a plot to get gun laws passed.
In a June 15 interview on Fox News, House oversight panel member John Mica, the third-ranking Republican, said: "This administration is a gun-control administration ... So they concocted this scheme; our federal agents sending guns down there and trying to cook some little deal to say 'we've got to get more guns under control.' That's how this all started."
The whole controversy, said Spitzer, the gun-lobby expert, was a "one-two punch for the NRA. It serves to weaken gun laws, and it's a black eye for the administration."
"Anything that the NRA can do to discredit the ATF, whose job it is to regulate gun sales among other things, and to weaken gun laws or gun-law enforcement, serves the purposes of the NRA."
Theories aside, the Obama administration has proposed no major gun control bills and has been criticized by gun-control organizations for avoiding the issue.
(Addtional reporting By Richard Cowan; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and David Brunnstrom)