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The Big Question Is: Who Knew?

Monday, September 26, 2011

by Chris W. Cox, NRA-ILA Executive Director

Where Will The Buck Stop When It Comes To BATFE’s Failed “Fast and Furious” Operation?

Fast and Furious.” Until a few months ago, those words may have been best known as the title of a series of action movies featuring fast cars and the sort of reckless action Hollywood loves to promote.

Now, thanks to ongoing media and congressional investigations, those words represent another kind of recklessness—the reckless disregard for public safety shown in a misguided and foolish law enforcement operation on the southwest border, accompanied by a lack of sound judgment and a clear failure of leadership at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The operation known as “Fast and Furious” is, of course, the Obama administration’s program in which Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents allowed the sale of thousands of firearms to suspected illegal purchasers. Even worse, the bureau literally sat back and watched those firearms walk out the door. Many of those guns, moving unhindered by the BATFE, have now turned up at crime scenes, both in Mexico and in the United States.

Much of what we’ve learned recently is thanks to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. For months now, Rep. Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have pressed for full disclosure of the facts. During that time, the Justice Department has fought to hide what really happened, using every excuse it could come up with to deny the truth to the American people.

But in the end, the truth is coming out, and many of the most damning truths appeared in a joint staff report on the scandal, released by the two lawmakers in advance of hearings held by Chairman Issa’s committee.

Some of the most important findings include:

• BATFE knowingly allowed 1,800 or more firearms to be sold illegally to known or suspected straw purchasers. Just one of those purchasers accounted for more than 700 illegal guns.

• BATFE supervisors specifically ordered agents working the program not to arrest illegal gun buyers or to interdict thousands of guns that were allowed to “walk” into criminal hands.

• Senior BATFE officials in Washington were regularly briefed on the operation and approved of the tactics employed.

• BATFE agents who opposed the operation and who raised objections were told to “get with the program” and threatened with job retaliation if they continued their opposition.

Key to these findings was testimony provided by a number of whistle-blowing BATFE field agents.

Special Agent John Dodson, in his prepared testimony, made the key point most plainly: “Simply put, during this operation known as Fast and Furious, we, ATF, failed to fulfill one of our most fundamental obligations, to care take the public trust, in part, to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”

Dodson, along with Special Agents Olindo James Casa and Peter Forcelli, among others, put their careers at risk to object to the operation’s tactics. In each case, not only were their objections dismissed by BATFE superiors, but it was made clear their jobs could be on the line if they did not get on board with the program.

Agent Casa testified that BATFE officials sent an e-mail rebuking those who opposed the plan. “Based on my 18 years of experience with ATF,” testified Casa, “I did not think the e-mail was an empty threat and took it very serious. It has become common practice for ATF supervisors to retaliate against employees that do not blindly toe the company line, no matter what the consequences.”

Agent Casa went on to describe the operation as “recklessly” planned and implemented with the purpose of allowing firearms to be illegally trafficked. He reported that agents were ordered not to take action against illegal gun buyers or to seize the firearms. Instead, surveillance was regularly broken off without further action—a drastic departure from BATFE’s usual practice.

Giving the lie to anti-gun claims that U.S. gun stores are part of the criminal gun trafficking network, the field agents also opposed the operation because of the negative impact it was having on lawful firearms dealers, who are crucial law enforcement allies in identifying illegal traffickers.

Though the firearm industry has long worked with BATFE to educate dealers about how to spot and block suspicious transactions, the agents testified that they were ordered to instruct cooperating gun dealers to complete sales to suspicious persons, including known straw purchasers.

As Agent Forcelli put it: “The gun dealers were our friends. They helped us make a lot of these cases. … But the problem is then, by getting them mixed up in this thing and … encouraging them to sell guns when they decided to stop did not help our reputation with the gun industry.”

In total, the witness statements and the findings of the staff report paint a shocking picture of an operation that intentionally allowed thousands of guns to end up in the hands of some of the most violent criminals in North America. It also showed that senior officials of the BATFE, and not just regional or local supervisors, approved of the operation and received regular reports on its progress. (Acting BATFE director Kenneth Melson even wanted to know how he could log in from his office to watch online video feeds from the bureau’s surveillance cameras in gun stores.)

What remains to be answered, however, is who really approved this operation. And the Justice Department does not appear willing to provide that answer.

Since the story of this reckless operation became known, the Department of Justice has refused to fully respond to congressional inquiries. Both Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassley have repeatedly had their requests for information denied. And even now, when the full seriousness of the scandal is becoming known, the department continues to stonewall.

Chairman Issa pointed out that even the information that has been provided is heavily redacted, with most of the key information blacked out.

One exchange between Rep. Issa and Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich at the hearings clearly shows the ongoing refusal of the DOJ to cooperate:

Chairman Issa: “Who authorized this program that got people killed? Who here in Washington authorized it?”

Weich: “We don’t know.”

“We don’t know” is simply not an acceptable answer, but Weich is not the first to use it.

Attorney General Eric Holder gave the same answer when asked the same question a few weeks before. After so many months of scandal and scrutiny, it seems hard to believe the Attorney General still can’t—or won’t—answer this simple question.

As NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told Fox News’ Lou Dobbs in June, “The administration needs to stop the cover-up,” adding, “Either they were doing this to prop up a political agenda of sending thousands of guns across the border and blaming it on American gun laws . . . or they were completely incompetent.”

Either way, those who approved this operation, and all those who should have known about it and failed to stop it, are responsible for the operation’s horrendous outcome. And that certainly includes Attorney General Holder.

At the core of this scandal is the effort to politicize BATFE’s law enforcement activities and to take advantage of yet another crisis to achieve a political agenda: the passage of new gun control laws.

The explosion of violence in Mexico as the various drug cartels fight with each other and with the Mexican government is a serious problem. But rather than focusing on ways to fight the cartels, anti-gun politicians in the U.S. have focused their efforts on American gun laws and the rights protected by the Second Amendment. And anti-gun groups and media outlets have tried to deflect attention from the scandal by blaming gun owners for blocking anti-gun laws.

All of these people are using the violence in Mexico as an excuse to promote the gun restrictions that they supported long before today’s drug war—restrictions such as the re-imposition of the semi-auto ban and a ban on private sales of firearms between law-abiding Americans. Both measures would threaten the right to arms, but neither would affect the cartels one bit.

The real solutions to the violence in Mexico will not be found in new restrictions on law-abiding Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Rampant drug abuse by Americans, widespread corruption in Mexico and a serious lack of effective border security have created an environment where drug cartels have billions of dollars to finance their wars.

Yet while none of those problems can be solved easily, one thing is clear: American law enforcement agencies must never be allowed to make the situation worse. Reckless operations like “Fast and Furious” must never be allowed to happen again. That will take not only a leadership change at the Justice Department and BATFE, but legislative reform. And that means it will be time once again for NRA members to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

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