Last Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 255-67 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for his refusal to turn over documents related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' "Fast and Furious" operation. It was the biggest twist yet in a story that has its roots in the relationship between disgruntled ATF agents and two conservative bloggers from Alabama and Ohio better known for stirring controversy than for breaking news.
Mike Vanderboegh and David Codrea are rarely mentioned in connection with what is perhaps the highest-profile law-enforcement failure of the Obama Administration. Their central role in unearthing the story, though, is a classic example of the kind of new media cycle in which news bubbles up from outlets few traditional reporters read or would even feel comfortable crediting. Before their first report on the story on December 28, 2010, Vanderboegh of “Sipsey Street Irregulars” and Codrea of examiner.com were gun-rights activists who curated small bands of loyal followers with a live-free-or-die ethos. (A few days before publishing the post that set the investigation of Fast and Furious in motion, for example, Vanderboegh wrote about a TSA parody video called “Grandma Got Molested at the Airport”.)
"It has been," said Vanderboegh, "the fight of my life."
Vanderboegh was at his suburban home in Jefferson County, Ala. when he saw allegations that Border Patrol agent Brian Terry had been killed by U.S.-smuggled weapons on a site called cleanupatf.org. “Appears that ATF may be one of the largest suppliers of assault rifles to the Mexican cartels! One of these rifles is rumored to have been linked to the recent killing of a Border Patrol Officer in Nogales, Ariz. Can anyone confirm this information?”
Vanderboegh quickly put the allegation up on “Sipsey Street Irregulars.” Sipsey Street, Vanderboegh's personal blog, is largely dedicated to advocating for second amendment rights, as well as denouncing most forms of progressive politics. That's where Codrea saw it; he and Vanderboegh had met each other a few years ago through their common interest in gun rights activism and began collaborating on covering the story they nicknamed “Project Gunwalker.”
“I think that within the first week things started to really come together. We were getting corroboration, and we were getting different people talking to us,” Codrea said. Vanderboegh and Codrea had cultivated relationships with ATF agents over the years, having gained a reputation within the community for covering ATF scandal stories.
Codrea said he was skeptical about what his sources at the ATF were sharing. “I still was not sure that there couldn’t be disinformation involved,” Codrea said. “If you come out with something that makes you look like an idiot, your reputation is going to be destroyed. You’re not going to put your credibility out there and have it shredded. So you do your best due diligence.”
After hearing the story from enough sources that they thought it credible, Codrea and Vanderboegh each wrote about the subject daily. They posted new information from their sources, timelines of their discoveries, how members of the Senate and Congress were getting involved, who had begun paying attention to the scandal. Vanderboegh and Codrea wrote with an angle — they were convinced early on that the ATF definitively in the wrong, and they thought this story was big.
But though the scandal circulated in certain conservative circles — World Net Daily, a conservative news site perhaps best known for conspiracy theories about president Obama's birth, picked up the story in late January — Vanderboegh and Codrea struggled to have it taken seriously by a wider audience.
This hesitancy on the behalf of the wider populace was, in part, due to the reputations the bloggers had created for themselves. In 2010 Vanderboegh suggested that people should break the windows of congressional representatives who planned on voting for the Affordable Care Act. Outrage ensued; New York Democratic party officials suggested he be arrested.
Vanderboegh now describes himself, with some pride, as “notorious.” He was “Born in Michigan, raised in Ohio amongst the heathen Buckeye, and refuged out of there in 1985 to Alabama — fleeing my ex-wife, the Wicked Witch of the North.” He wrote for his high school and college newspapers, but was never formally trained in journalism.
Vanderboegh wasn’t always a hard-line conservative activist either. In 1967, he joined the anti-war movement, participating in organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Socialist Workers Party. He calls it his “Benedict Arnold Period.”
“Mostly I was a product of the times and the fact that most teenagers have excrement for brains,” Vanderboegh said. “I joined the anti-war movement because I didn't yet have the discernment to know crap from breakfast and my father pissed me off.”
There were some unanticipated upsides to Vanderboegh’s liberalism, he now says. “At least beign a Maoist was good small arms training. You may remember that butcher’s famous dictum about political power,” Vanderboegh said. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Vanderboegh now carries a .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol, and he does not shy away from conflict, as evidenced by the “Contact Us” section of “Sipsey Street Irregulars.”
“Poisoned fruit, anthrax powder, letter bombs, Christmas cards and stacks of small bills may be forwarded to: P.O. Box 926, Pinson, AL 35126,” the blurb reads. It continues, “Please note that death threats via telephone on a line under federal court-ordered wiretap are perfectly fine with me and quite entertaining, but rather stupid.” (Buzzfeed followed up with Vanderboegh about whether wiretap reference was meant seriously, and he responded, "taps come and go, some official, some not." He also detailed some of the threats he's received — Easter 2010 brought the FBI and HAZMAT to his door after Vanderboegh received a holiday card filled with powder.)
Codrea’s online personality is decidedly less divisive than Vanderboegh’s. Though he focuses on gun rights, he says considers himself primarily an advocate for freedom.
“What I write about isn’t so much guns. Guns are just the perfect platform to build arguments around,” Codrea said. “Some people tell me they get writers block. I have no idea what that means,” Codrea said, laughing. “I always have dozens of things to write about.”
Through the Fast and Furious scandal has been picked up primarily by conservative members of both the media and Congress, Codrea insists that he does his best to be nonpartisan. “I don’t spare Republicans criticism when I feel that they merit criticism, and sometimes brutal criticism,” Codrea said. “I don’t spare the NRA management criticism,” he added. In November 2011 Codrea criticized Mitt Romney as an unacceptable Republican presidential candidate because of a comment he made in July of that year that "Deadly assault weapons have no place in Massachusetts.”
“I have no idea whether Brian Terry was a Republican or a Democrat, and I don’t care,” Codrea said. “I don’t know that Brian Terry would have liked me personally, because I’m kind of an anti-authoritarian smartass. But that doesn’t matter either. The guy died in the service of the country—his family deserves answers."
When other media outlets did begin covering the story, Vanderboegh and Codrea were thrilled. “We were ecstatic at that point that some ‘real journalists’ were finally paying attention,” Vanderboegh said. “Face it, neither one of us is a news bureau,” Codrea said. “We don’t have research staffs and things like that.” CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson was the first mainstream journalist to cover the story when she reported on what was then called the Project Gunrunner scandal. This two months after Vanderboegh’s first blog post; the New York Times picked the story up in June of 2011.
One of the reasons they were pleased with mainstream media attention and the subsequent Congressional investigations, they say, is that the increased attention ensured safety for their sources. “Until we finally got the attention of Senators Sessions and then Grassley, these guys were out there twisting in the wind, viewed as traitors by their own agency, with no whistleblower status to protect them. Understand, there was a very real threat that they might be killed,” Vanderboegh said.
That being said, Codrea has been dissatisfied with how Fast and Furious has turned into a mechanism for partisan point scoring, with Republicans interested primarily in doing damage to the Obama Administration, and Democrats labeling it as irrelevant. From Codrea's perspective, both politicians and the media have lost sight of the core issue at hand: discovering the truth about Terry's death.
"I don’t care where this leads except to the truth," Codrea said.
“We'll find out if the whistleblowers were wrong when Eric Holder turns over the documents. Until then, we are awaiting more data,” Vanderboegh said.
“I don’t want this to be a partisan football,” Codrea insisted. “I want this to be an American issue.”