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As reported in this column, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, has problems – big problems – and those problems just keep getting bigger and bigger.
As ATF’s problems over the “Gunwalker” operation grow, they are rapidly becoming the problems of top Justice Department and Obama administration officials. So damning is the potential of the scandal that during a recent interview with the Mexican television network Univision, President Obama made it a point to deny knowledge or complicity in the operation. He also gave a free pass to Attorney General Holder, stating that Holder had not authorized the operation, but then he admitted that someone might have made major mistakes and that he intended to investigate the matter and hold those responsible accountable.
What this all suggests is that a bus is coming and Obama is looking for someone to throw under it. Mexican authorities are furious about the ATF program, code named “Fast and Furious,” which permitted, and in some cases assisted or encouraged, gun smuggling from legal US channels into the Mexican underworld – without the knowledge or cooperation of the Mexican government.
The degree of outrage was demonstrated by Obama’s decision to do the one-on-one interview with Univision. To date the highest ranking official in Washington willing to answer U.S. reporters’ questions has been ATF Acting Assistant Director for Field Operations Mark Chait, who initially took credit for and defended the ill-fated policy. He has since become very quiet, but his initial interviews have clearly affixed a large bull’s-eye to his back.
In my original report I said that there were four key accusations against ATF: First, that they instructed U.S. gun dealers to proceed with questionable and illegal sales of firearms to suspected gunrunners. Second, that they allowed or even assisted in those guns crossing the U.S. border into Mexico. Third, that they intentionally kept Mexican authorities in the dark about the operation. Fourth, that one of the guns ATF let “walk” to Mexico was involved in the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
I also reported that the linchpin in getting to the bottom of those accusations was finding a senator or high ranking House member willing and able to give protection to ATF whistleblowers and to demand answers to tough questions from ATF and Justice Department executives.
Shortly after my initial report, Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, took up the challenge. His involvement reassured the whistleblowers and caught the attention of some in the major media, and in very short order all four of the accusations I had spelled out have been proven to be valid.
ATF has admitted encouraging sales to suspected gunrunners, though they officially deny allowing guns to cross the border. But whistleblowers and ATF’s own records indicate that the agency did intentionally allow cross-border smuggling and intended such smuggling as an integral part of their overall strategy.
The former ATF attaché to Mexico, Darren Gil, has come forward and publicly stated that initially even he was not informed about the gunwalking operation and that when he learned of it he was ordered by superiors to keep the information away from his Mexican counterparts. Gil stated that he was told the project, and the decision to keep Mexican authorities in the dark, went all the way up to ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson and beyond to high-ranking officials within the Justice Department.
ATF has been coy about the connection between the gunwalking scheme and the death of BPA Terry. While they admit that two AK-47-style rifles found at the scene were originally acquired by a man while he was under ATF surveillance, they insist that there isn’t clear evidence that either of those two guns was actually used to shoot Terry.
In February two unarmed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents were attacked on the roadside near San Luis Potosi, Mexico. One, Agent Jaime Zapata, was killed and his partner, Agent Victor Avila, was seriously wounded. A gun recovered from the scene and believed to be the murder weapon has been traced to one of a pair of brothers who have been on an ATF watch list for at least several months. The key question now is whether the brothers and their illegal activities were known to ATF before or after the acquisition of the suspected murder weapon.
While this whole mess is very complicated and convoluted, in this case the devil is not so much in the details as the broad view. Here are the two key questions: What were the stated objectives of project Fast and Furious? And what were the actual results?
ATF was under pressure from their bosses at the Justice Department to make major “kingpin” busts rather than just arresting relatively minor, illegal “straw man” buyers. Fast and Furious was supposed to allow ATF to build bigger cases against gun smuggling networks by following guns from original purchaser to their eventual use – generally in violent crime, typically in Mexico with Mexican nationals as the victims – without the knowledge or cooperation of the Mexican government.
Anyone who doesn’t see some glaring problems with this plan is wearing blinders.
Shortly after the murder of BPA Terry ATF announced, with much fanfare and self-congratulation, the successful conclusion of operation Fast and Furious with a 53-count indictment against 20 individuals. The vast majority of the charges were for giving a false statement in connection with the acquisition of a firearm, and for “money laundering” when they paid cash for guns. There were also a few charges related to dealing in marijuana against two or three of the suspects.
The first thing that jumps out at me about the indictments is that I see nothing that justifies the strategy of allowing two thousand or more guns to walk. None of the charges brought seem to be based on, or bolstered by, that strategy. Now I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that watching a guy purchase a dozen or more Ak-47s with cash and then following him to where he turns those guns over to another guy should be enough to make a “false statement” charge and a “dealing without a license” charge stick to both of them. At 5 years per charge per gun, it shouldn’t be that hard to put such a gun trafficker away for a good long time – without letting them purchase and “dispose of” thousands of guns before making an arrest.
Another very troubling aspect of this case – and one which has only been raised by “gun rights extremists” such as myself and the two bloggers who are really responsible for breaking the story in the first place and forcing it onto politicians and the media, Mike Vanderboegh and David Codrea – is the fact that ATF and administration officials have aggressively advocated for more restrictions on U.S. firearms sales and more money for ATF enforcement activities, all based on gun trace numbers which they knew were artificially inflated by their own programs.
The whole thing stinks to high heaven, and the stonewalling continues as more information slowly trickles out. Confirmation hearings for Obama’s nominee for ATF director have been stalled. Both ATF and the Justice Department have failed to turn over information requested by Senator Grassley and Rep. Issa, R-Calif.
Obama supporters in Congress are actively dragging their feet against any ATF oversight hearings. And acting Director Melson backed out of scheduled testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for fear of being questioned about the international incident generated by revelations of ATF’s callous indifference to international law and loss of life in Mexico.
As I predicted back in January, this could mean the end of ATF as an agency, and there are many in the rights community who would cheer their demise, but even if ATF is broken up and their duties folded into other agencies, that won’t fix the real problem: poorly written laws that beg misdirected and abusive enforcement.