Exclusive: The Devil You Know

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By David Codrea

“The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would be eliminated under a bill in the works from US Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner,” Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel reported. “Citing ATF’s recent operational failures and its overlap with other federal law enforcement, [the bill would] dissolve the agency and have existing agencies in the US Justice Department take on its duties.”

Those “operational failures” included the infamous Milwaukee storefront operation renamed “Operation Fearless and Brainless” by Rep. John Mica as he confronted Director B. Todd Jones at a House Oversight Committee hearing. True to form, things weren’t confined to one city, with debacles exposed in Wichita, Portland and Pensacola that included such truly brainless tactics as exploiting a mentally disabled teenager by giving him a neck tattoo of a squid smoking a joint, and paying a brain-damaged man with an IQ in the 50’s to set up gun and drug deals. Other idiotic moves included exploiting other low-intelligence marks, letting teens smoke pot and providing them with alcohol at an undercover location, encouraging thefts by buying stolen merchandise—no questions asked—allowing felons to walk out of such operations with guns, and in one case, hiring a felon to run a pawnshop.

Adding to their woes, and ours, ATF agents have been losing government-issued guns, at least 49 from 2009 to 2013. They’ve lost them in cars, in bathrooms, in bars. That’s in spite of bureau rules requiring service weapons, when not being carried, “shall be stored in secured, locked locations.”

This is all the kind of stuff that naming a full-time director was supposed to prevent. Actually, it’s the kind of stuff that basic common sense ought to preclude. Such embarrassments continuing to happen with regularity on Jones’ watch have gone unreported by most in the mainstream press, because then an inconvenient admission would need to be made: The supposed inadequacy of a string of “acting” ATF heads since 2006 was precisely the rationale given to pressure the Senate into confirming a “permanent” director. We were told that was especially urgent after Operation Fast and Furious “gunwalking” to Mexico, tied in with the death of US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and estimated hundreds of others, was exposed.

With that as backdrop, why shouldn’t ATF be disbanded and folded into other agencies, including having much of its work turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration? Could the feds do any worse?

It’s not like those agencies’ hands were clean. The “rip crew” that killed Terry was working at the behest of FBI operatives using DEA intelligence, Fast and Furious whistleblower John Dodson contends. Also unknown to ATF at the height of their investigation: Suspects they were monitoring were working for the FBI.

And it’s not like Sensenbrenner’s proposal just appeared out of nowhere. Some ATF careerists commenting on CleanUpATF.org, a “whistleblower website established to expose agency corruption and abuse, see the disbanding of the bureau as an administration goal for control and obfuscation reasons of its own, and view Jones as a willing midwife for its rebirth as a different creature. Comments by CUATF moderators have referenced “a white paper in DOJ effectively abolishing ATFE,” and assigning primary functions to FBI and DEA.

Lest anyone dismiss that site as disgruntled employees and malcontents, recall that it was through their forum it was first revealed guns found at the Terry murder scene were part of intentional, large scale, government-sanctioned “gunwalking.” Higher-ups at headquarters, including the Chief Counsel and then acting director Kenneth Melson, were desperately looking for ways to use Orders and Standards of Conduct to identify and punish those revealing such information.

Note the Chief Counsel’s office was also involved in an email to ATF managers and attorneys warning about an open letter I wrote in January, 2011, in which the Senate Judiciary Committee was put on notice that there were some people who wanted to come in from the cold, but feared using normal channels.

“ATF employees are looking to come forward and provide testimony and documentation about guns being illegally transported to Mexico, with management cognizance, in order to pad numbers and justify Project Gunrunner expansion,” that letter began. “This includes gun stores being used to allow illegal sales to proceed. Additionally, the gun used in the recent killing of a Border Patrol agent is alleged to be one of the guns involved. My colleagues and I working to bring this to light are told the Mexican authorities have been intentionally kept in the dark about this, with the approval to do so coming from Washington, and protests have been overridden.

“In order for these people to come forward, they require whistle-blower protection,” the letter continued. “Because the allegations involve high levels in Washington, they require the extra protection afforded through separation of powers, rather than going directly to a US Attorney reporting to Justice.”

That the allegations and the fear of reprisals turned out to be justified is a matter of record. I bring this up because, working with the insiders proved us right then, and lends credence to our concerns now. In spite of all the stupidity, corruption and outright evil, disbanding ATF is not in the interest of gun owners.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the reasons given by two men who, in many cases, represent opposite factions among gun advocates, Richard Feldman of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, and Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America. I say “opposite” because Feldman arranged the 1997 White House Rose Garden agreement with Bill Clinton, when handgun manufacturers agreed to provide “child safety locks” with handguns.

Additionally, his book Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, hardly endeared him to the National Rifle Association, which he characterized as “a cynical, mercenary cult.” Pratt, on the other hand, has established a reputation as the unbending force behind the “no compromise gun lobby.”

“I can’t think of anything more dangerous against gun rights than merging the ATF with the FBI,” Feldman told journalist Raquel Okyay of Human Events. “I would much rather have a stand-alone agency because it is much easier to criticize the ATF for misconduct, than to criticize the FBI … They would have awesome cover for misconduct and it would be harder not easier to hold them accountable.”

“ATF has been a horror movie since its inception,” Pratt asserted. “It needs to be disbanded, not moved to a hiding place behind the FBI skirts—which do not cover very well, anyway.

That “hiding place” under “awesome cover” would also work against future employees of conscience being willing to place their careers (and possibly more) on the line to bring out revelations like we saw in Fast and Furious.

“We advise intelligence whistleblowers to stay away from established channels to defend against retaliation,” the director of the Government Accountability Project told McClatchy’s Washington Bureau about the so-called Whistleblower Protection Act. “In our experience they’ve been a Trojan horse, a trap that ends up sucking the whistleblower into a long-term process that predictably ends up with the whistleblower as the target.”

In this case, noting corruption and incompetence is unlikely to abate, it’s best to do what we can to keep it from being buried, and to ensure channels for getting the truth out are still open. In this case, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t appears to hold true.

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