Fast and Furious Fiasco: Time to Abolish the ATF

Voltaire observed "It's a good thing to kill an admiral now and then to encourage the others." This observation inspires me to suggest  that when an agency carries out  such a  bit of  idiotic malfeasance as the ATF's operation "Fast and Furious" with the cooperation of agents at all levels of the spectrum, an operation which resulted , among other things in the murder of a U.S. customs agent and prominent relative of a Mexican official, it's time to dissolve the operation and dismiss all of its employees. To encourage the others.

If there are agents in the Bureau unconnected with this operation who have valuable skills and experience we wish to retain, the successor agencies of the Bureau are free to rehire them. As to the others -- those who went along to get along -- it will encourage federal employees working for an out of control agency to take advantage of the federal whistleblowers procedure and turn in the wrongdoers before such egregious harm comes to pass.  It simply is not enough to accede to a pattern of what Darrell Issa calls "felony stupid" conduct and keep your place at the federal table. 

A Brief History of the Bureau of  Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms( ATF)

In its most recent form, the Bureau was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice in 2003, a move in accord with the 2002 Homeland Security Act.  In one form or another it has existed since 1789, when the Treasury was given responsibility for collecting a tax on imported spirits.  It has in time established  a laboratory for analyzing alcohol and tobacco products as well as firearms and explosives.  It has had a prohibition unit  in the 1920's, and since  the 1930's has overseen the collection of taxes on firearms.   

For decades , until 1972 the alcohol and tobacco tax division was under IRS control. When it was separated from IRS, it took on control over explosives , and shortly afterward  the ATF and its lab became involved in arson investigations.  If the ATF as it's presently constructed is dissolved, there's no reason why  the revenue collection side of the operation shouldn't return to the Department of the Treasury and the firearms and explosives investigations (and laboratory) shouldn't be given to the FBI.  As the brief history of the bureau shows, its functions  have operated under various organizational models in the past and there is no reason why it cannot be yet again reformulated.

Operation Fast and Furious 

Operation Fast and Furious was a bit of nincompoopery worthy of the creative genius of Joseph Heller of "Catch 22" fame; it has all the hallmarks of the ludicrous "Syndicate" of that work.  Briefly, the ATF violated the National Firearms Act and the Arms Export Control Act, requiring arms sellers to allow straw purchasers to buy more than 2,000 firearms --including  1,700 AK-47 style rifles and other high powered weapons --  and smuggle them across the border to Mexico. Two of these weapons were found in Arizona at the site of a shootout which took the life of Brian Terry, a Customs and Border Protection agent.  Others turned up at the scenes of over 150 murders in  Mexico, including a high profile lawyer whose brother was the attorney general of the state of Chihuahua.

The proffered purpose of this operation was to trace the smuggler's trail to the Mexican criminals to track the major Mexican weapons dealers but if that was the purpose it failed to meet its objective. One ATF whistleblower, Vince Cefalu, charges "there is no huge gun-trafficking operation, no Iron Pipeline" of firearms traveling from the U.S. to Mexico -- just lots of buyers who can  make a couple thousand dollars selling weapons across the border."

Mr. Cefalu also charges that the Mexican Government and the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico were not apprised of the operation.

Some commentators believe the real purpose of the operation was to provide "evidence" that U.S. arms were behind the gang violence in Mexico to provide a basis for further restrictions on U.S. arms sales, pointing to comments by Hillary Clinton and the New York Times editors on the need for further restrictions to limit the weaponry of the Mexican drug cartels.  While the supposition is far from unreasonable, stronger evidence supporting such claims is to date missing.

Who Okayed the Operation?

At the moment, the Department of Justice is trying furiously to protect Attorney General Eric Holder from being implicated in this fiasco. Vince Cefalu says that Holder had to be involved  because no one would run an operation this size without approval from the boss, in this case Holder. There are other indications of his involvement. Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa says:

"They had to go to Justice to get money, to get FBI agents [and] all of the other people that helped coordinate this and to get the wiretaps they used," said Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

As for Holder, said Issa, "he should have known. It was his obligation to know." And other committee officials insist "it's quite certain that Kenneth Melson was not the principal architect of this plan."

Much remains to be learned about this fiasco -- and an internal Justice Department whitewash won't get the job done.

The acting Bureau Head Kenneth Melson was expected to resign this week, but as of Friday night he had not and it was bruited about that he wants to testify before Chairman Issa's Committee  but Holder is refusing to grant him permission to do so:

ATF Director Kenneth Melson, who was heavily involved in Operation Fast and Furious, doesn't look like he's willing to fall on his sword for Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama just yet. In fact, Melson is ready to testify in front of the House Oversight Committee where Rep. Darrell Issa will ask him who above him ordered the operation within the Justice Department. Eric Holder should be very, very worried. Rumors have been swirling around Washington all week that Melson would resign, yet it is now Friday and no resignation has been made.  [Snip]

Between the Obama Justice Department submitting 900 pages of black, redacted material to Rep. Issa and now the DOJ stalling to give Melson permission to testify, there is no question the authorization of Operation Fast and Furious goes much higher up in the department than Holder wants us to know about.


Melson was closely involved in the operation and his testimony would certainly be welcome:

At a House hearing last week, testimony from ATF agents portrayed Melson as closely involved in overseeing the venture. At one point, according to documents released by Congress, he asked for and received log-in information and a link to an Internet feed in order to watch some of the illegal straw purchases.

 Aside from the inference of Holder's involvement based on the way such  operations are run, there are strong indications of it because of the fast and furious efforts to attack Issa, the stonewalling of the committee by his Department and the false information his aides fed the gullible reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post  in an effort to undercut Issa.

Thus, the Washington Post reported (based entirely on  anonymous sources) that Issa had been briefed about the operation in April of last year, an event which is unlikely for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the inconsistency of Department of Justice senior officials claiming they were unaware of the operation at all. How could Issa have been briefed on the operation by people who knew nothing of  the very operation?

Issa's spokesman, Frederick Hill, said the Department of Justice is the source of these false claims and potshots and that other publications were told of them, reported that to Hill and refused to run these claims.  Matthew Boyle in the Daily Caller:

"There are lots of people in the Justice Department who were involved in the gun walking of Operation Fast and Furious," Hill said. "And, I suspect a lot of people, right now, are looking at their mirrors in the morning and wondering if they're still going to have a career six months from now because of the wrongdoing that occurred there. There are people who are clearly in a desperate position at the Justice Department."

The Washington Post also ignored a major part of Hill's statement when writing their story on the matter. "They left the parts out where we told them that a staff member from Ranking Member Cummings's [office], who has been working on the Fast and Furious investigation, was also in that briefing," Hill told TheDC.

That part of his statement walks through how the Wall Street Journal had already debunked the meme, too. "The April 2010 ATF briefing on weapons smuggling by criminal cartels included a staff member of the Democratic staff of the Oversight Committee who has been working for Ranking Member Cummings on the Fast and Furious investigation," the part of Hill's statement to the Post that its reporters ignored read. "This Democratic staff member has never indicated to Republican staff that he had any prior awareness of the gunwalking that took place in Operation Fast and Furious and the recollections of Republican staff who attended this briefing have already been reported in the Wall Street Journal."

I believe there were a lot of people involved at the Department of Justice and I doubt there'd be so much stonewalling and mudslinging were Holder in the clear.

Besides wanting Melson's testimony and a more forthright response to the Committee's document requests from the Department of Justice, Issa wants those agents who did come forward and speak to the Committee to be granted the federal whistleblowers protections they are entitled to by law. which asserts it is run by ATF agents, claims abuse of agents and mismanagement in the agency is common. 

In the meantime, here's Holder's dilemma in a nutshell: If he doesn't fire Melson, the issue will continue to boil on the front burner.  If he does, Melson is free to talk to the Committee, and if my suspicions are correct, Melson's testimony will lead to Holder's long deserved downfall as Attorney General.

Clarice Feldman is a former federal prosecutor.

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