Is it possible that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, might have had a valid reason for what has become known as Project Gunwalker?
Might there be a good excuse for ATF instructing gun dealers to make sales the dealers didn’t want to make to people who were pretty obviously gun traffickers? Can there possibly be some justification for ATF allowing thousands of guns to be smuggled into Mexico where they were used in countless crimes, potentially killing scores of people – including an unarmed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Mexico and a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona?
No, it is not possible and there is no conceivable way to justify the agency’s actions, but there is a chance that the ill-conceived program codenamed Fast and Furious, an element of the ATF’s larger plan to reduce gun trafficking into Mexico called Project Gunrunner, might have been motivated by something other than petty politics and budgeting concerns.
Since evidence of the Gunwalker scandal first began surfacing in late December of 2010, most knowledgeable observers, myself included, have been at a loss to find a motive other than political self-interest to explain ATF’s actions in this matter. The suggestion that the idea was to bust up drug cartels and arrest major drug “kingpins” by tracking the guns to them is just plain silly. The elites of the Mexican crime organizations do not sully their hands with the work, or the tool, of peons, and they have easy access to much better hardware through their government friends in Mexico and South and Central America. Mexican cartels are also very loose associations, not rigid corporate structures. Most of the members of these cartels are independent operators who pledge some allegiance and pay some tribute to their patron in the cartel in exchange for connections and protection. They, like the gun smugglers, are entrepreneurs – low-life thugs and bottom feeders who are acquiring guns in furtherance of their own small-time operations.
The notion of tracking the guns back to drug lords in Mexico is even more ludicrous when you remember that one of the central issues in the scandal is the fact that ATF and the Department of Justice kept the operation a secret from Mexican authorities. Since they didn’t include the Mexicans from the beginning, they certainly couldn’t have planned to tell them after they had flooded the country with illegal arms. That left no way for them to get to the bad guys even if the trail was obvious. Without the cooperation of the Mexican government there is nothing ATF could have done to criminals in Mexico.
On the other hand, ATF has been trying to use the violence in Mexico as leverage to increase their budget, expand their authority and restrict U.S. gun ownership. They have also been under pressure from their new bosses at the DOJ, which took over the agency following 9-11, to build more and stronger gun-trafficking cases against higher-level players.
They demonstrated their willingness to distort numbers when they promulgated the now discredited statistics about “90 percent of Mexican crime guns” coming from the U.S. – and that lie, though proven false, continues to be repeated by many politicians and media hacks.
In light of these facts, along with the ATF’s history of corruption, misguided operations and mistrust of American gun owners – and Obama’s anti-rights record and admission that he is working on gun control, “under the radar” – rights watchers can hardly be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the whole Gunwalker scheme was a way to generate higher U.S.-to-Mexico smuggling numbers and bump Mexican crime numbers in general as a way to build popular and political support for increased funding, broader authority and increased restrictions on gun ownership. There just didn’t seem to be any other explanation.
But there is another and another culprit in the Gunwalker scandal.
I have long held that ATF could not abuse U.S. gun owners and dealers to the extent that they do without the assistance and cooperation of U.S. attorneys’ offices. U.S. attorneys prosecute for minor violations of the Gun Control Act and pull out all of the stops to get a conviction, regardless of the circumstances or anything resembling justice. That symbiotic relationship has strengthened in the years since ATF was moved from the Treasury Department to the Justice Department. As enforcement agents for DOJ, the ATF is the stick and DOJ is the arm wielding it – with the president and attorney general being the brains directing the arm.
In this case ATF was in trouble because their dollar-to-donut ratio was way off. They were spending tremendous sums of money on Project Gunrunner but generating few arrests and even fewer convictions. Without arrests and convictions the agency was doomed. A big part of the problem was that U.S. attorneys were refusing to prosecute huge numbers of ATF’s cases. That meant that all of the work ATF had put into the cases was wasted. ATF was pushed to the edge of extinction, and then the DOJ offered them a path to security – a blueprint to a solid arrest-and-conviction ratio. They told them that the first issue was the number of charges they were proffering against most individuals. Since judges were typically handing out sentences of less than a year for straw purchasers and just over a year for providing false information on a firearms application – the most common charges brought against gun traffickers – U.S. attorneys said that it wasn’t worth their time to prosecute cases with only one or two charges against the defendant. The attorneys told ATF that if they wanted a gun-trafficking case prosecuted, the defendant needed a minimum of 10 to 20 separate offenses against him and there needed to be a tie between a gun the defendant had purchased and at least one violent crime.
So Fast and Furious was born. In it ATF would identify suspected traffickers, place them under surveillance and document them purchasing as many weapons as they could – the more the better. The plan also required that at least some of the weapons the suspects purchased had to be allowed into circulation, otherwise they could never be connected to a violent crime. With the skyrocketing murder rate in Mexico, that shouldn’t take long …
As the flawed plan went into actual operation, ATF began running into problems with gun dealers turning down business from ATF’s suspects. The solution was to instruct gun dealers to not only go through with suspicious sales to ATF suspects, but to also go through with other suspicious sales and notify ATF about them so they could possibly add more suspects to their program. As dealers became more cooperative and apparently less suspicious, the gun traffickers escalated their purchases, and the numbers of suspicious buyers began climbing too.
ATF, meanwhile, made their agents keep away from suspected smuggling vehicles headed toward the border and gave customs agents not quite enough information to insure a successful interdiction, because smugglers getting caught meant reduced chances of connecting guns to crimes, and it meant sharing credit with another “competing” agency.
The plan was apparently considered a rousing success in the upper echelons of ATF and the DOJ, with luminaries as high as Acting Director of ATF Ken Melson and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer praising the program and supporting the Phoenix office’s decision to keep the project a secret from Mexican authorities.
It wasn’t until two of the guns that were allowed to “walk” in the Fast and Furious program were found at the scene of the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry that things began unraveling and the sparkle began to fade. Now everyone from Obama down is disavowing any knowledge or involvement, and the official policy in Washington is to keep mum about the whole mess.
While it is still very likely that boosting gunrunning numbers and fueling violence as a way to sway the public and politicians into supporting increased restrictions on firearms and increased funding for ATF played a significant role in the whole Gunwalker mess, it’s nice to think that there might have been at least a little compulsion to put scumbags away for longer periods mixed into the motivational mix.
But ATF’s current renewed push for mandatory reporting (and registration) of all sales of two or more long guns to the same buyer within a week – and their use of Fast and Furious numbers to support their arguments – suggests that money and politics were right up at the top of the list of motivators all along.