woody_zimmerman_118_2007Attorney General Eric Holder has testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about a failed weapons-tracking program called Fast and Furious, in which hundreds – perhaps thousands – of handguns and automatic weapons were sold to criminals. Planned tracking of the weapons subsequently failed, and the whereabouts of many were simply lost. Some of those weapons were later traced to a crime in which bandits slew Border Agent Brian A. Terry. Investigators found weapons at the crime-scene that had been sold to known criminal elements by agents of the Department of Justice.

Mr. Holder admitted that the operation was “flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution,” but he declined to accept personal responsibility, saying he couldn’t be expected to be aware of day-to-day management and operation of every program in his department. He claimed that he did not read his own e-mails, but expected subordinates to keep him posted on matters that deserved his attention. In effect, he blamed those subordinates for failing to alert him to the operation’s problems and failures.

Mr. Holder also revised earlier statements in which he claimed to have learned of Fast and Furious only “a few weeks before.” In his testimony this week, he admitted that he should have said “a few months earlier.” In fact, e-mails have been released which appear to show that Mr. Holder was advised concerning Fast and Furious around the beginning of 2011.

Undoubtedly like millions of Americans, I found myself bemused by Mr. Holder’s disingenuous dissociation of himself from a program of questionable soundness that actually placed weapons in the hands of criminals. There’s no perfect analogy, but it reminds one of putting a stocked liquor cabinet in the rooms of a de-tox facility. I’m not a law-enforcement expert, but isn’t arming the bad guys the last thing you’d want to do? (Hello! Is anyone in there?)

I’ve never run a big organization like the Department of Justice. But I have worked for a technical company in which the CEO was a Ph.D. physicist who brought significant technical understanding and intellectual curiosity to his management of the company. He had a sharp eye for bull-hockey, and he brought loads of experience to his position.

I was a young mathematician and computer scientist (and nobody very significant) when I came to that company, but even I met the CEO when he occasionally cruised the halls of our offices. Engineers learned to keep their engineering notebooks handy in case the Big Guy popped his head in the door and said, “Hey, I’m Bob X. What are you working on these days?” It was more than just a matter of good form to be able to answer in a way that showed you knew what you were doing. As we quickly learned, you couldn’t snow Dr. X, and there would be hell to pay if you tried to.

As our company grew in size, scope and geographical expanse, those hands-on visits by the CEO gradually diminished, of course. It simply wasn’t possible for him to spread himself that thin, for there were too many high-level matters and decisions that only he could deal with. Nevertheless, he left his mark on the company he founded.

The Marine Corps has a famous motto: Every man a rifleman. There are no pure paper-pushers in the Corps. Our company was like that, in a technical sense, from top to bottom. Managers at every level were expected to be scientists and engineers who brought important technical credentials to the entire scope of the company’s business.

I believe this emphasis was an important factor in the company’s growth from a handful of people to an engineering giant, over the span of 40 years. When I came aboard, I was employee # 513. By the time I retired, thirty years later, we had over 45,000 employees. Every man a “rifleman.” But I digress.

Mr. Holder seems to believe that he can remain aloof from important programs and activities in the federal department that he runs. It’s a crafty strategy. If these activities succeed, he can slide in to take the credit. But if they fail, he can claim he wasn’t privy to the details. (Really, at his exalted level, how could he be?)

But his claim that he can’t be aware of “day-to-day management…of every program…” is a straw man. No sensible person expects anything of the sort. It is not unreasonable, however, to expect him to be acquainted with the broad outlines of everything going on in DoJ. Unquestionably, this would include any program as potentially controversial – not to say “risky” – as Fast and Furious.

If, as he claims, Mr. Holder was not briefed very early on the F&F program, then his staff is either incompetent or corrupt. In either case, all subordinates responsible for this lapse should be immediately discharged. Imagine the risk to the country if criminals armed by F&F or a similar program should reach the president or the Congress, or should harm large numbers of citizens. For the country’s top federal law-enforcement official to be unaware of it is unthinkable.

The darker possibility is that Mr. Holder is being less than truthful about what he knew (and when he knew it). If it is revealed that he did know of the program during its early planning and implementation, but failed to recognize its flaws, then there must be some question about his competence to sit in his current position. This is a serious failing.

Beyond all that there is the small matter of lying to a committee of the Congress and to the American people. Citizens of all political stripes should refuse to accept this. It is simply intolerable. Mr. Holder’s resignation should be demanded and received.

President Bill Clinton lied on national TV about his sexual involvement with a White House Intern. He looked the American people in the eye, told a bald-faced lie, and got away with it. Supporters said everybody lies about sex, “boys will be boys,” and we should “move on.”

Mr. Clinton also tampered with a jury in the Paula Jones lawsuit. This goes beyond lying about a dalliance. It is a serious crime. People go to prison for it, but not a sitting president. Mr. Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, but he survived in office when the Senate failed to convict him on any of the violations with which he was charged. Ultimately, he lost his law license for a period of five years.

I don’t know if Mr. Holder has lied or if he thinks he can skate, as Mr. Clinton did. Whatever he thinks, I can assure him that “boys will be boys” does not apply in this case. And he is certainly not Bill Clinton.