Until this year, the worst episode in the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives came in 1993, when the ATF raided cult leader David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound. That raid led to a 50-day standoff that ended with the deaths of 83 Davidians and provided endless fodder for anti-government types (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh among them), the gun lobby, and Republican lawmakers, who overtook Congress the next year on a wave of anti-Washington resentment. Although it was the FBI that oversaw the final siege of the compound, and although four of its agents were killed in the shootout, the ATF took most of the blame. A board member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) wrote, in a letter to then Attorney General Janet Reno, "If you send your jack-booted baby-burning bushwhackers to confiscate my guns, pack them a lunch; it will be a damned long day. The Branch Davidians were amateurs; I'm a professional." By jackbooted, baby-burning bushwhackers he meant, of course, ATF agents.
The guns of the U.S.-Mexico border
Bad as 1993 was politically for the ATF, 2011 has been worse. In January, it came out that a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, killed in Arizona in December, was shot with an AK-47 purchased at a gun store near Phoenix by someone under ATF surveillance. Since this spring, Congress has been looking into the investigation that monitored that sale and others like it. Operation Fast and Furious, as it was infelicitously known, was aimed at dismantling a gunrunning ring smuggling weapons from the United States to the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. It was an interagency investigation involving not just the ATF, but also the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the FBI, the Arizona U.S. attorney's office, and the Justice Department. It was carried out with the knowledge of the National Security Council.
But the ATF is, once again, taking the heat. On Tuesday, Aug. 30, ATF acting director Kenneth E. Melson and Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke were forced out over the scandal, according to the New York Times. All other major newspapers and networks have covered the controversy, mostly breathlessly and with a marked lack of context. Fox News and its Internet echo chambers would have you believe they're on the trail of a major coverup. And the NRA is, to no one's surprise, having a ball. As recently as February, NRA Director Wayne LaPierre blasted "the phony claim that armed violence committed by Mexican drug cartels on Mexican soil is fueled by guns obtained from federally licensed retailers in border states." Now, amazingly, LaPierre tells news organizations that cross-border gun-trafficking does exist -- only, it's the government that's responsible for it.
"The largest gunrunning operation in history into the hands of the Mexican drug cartels has been conducted by the Obama administration's Justice Department," he said.
Only slightly less shameful than his self-serving cant were hearings held in late July, in which House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa dragged ATF agents over the coals -- or attempted to. Even by the farcical standards of congressional hearings, these were useless. Not that it mattered. The point, after all, was not to figure out how Fast and Furious went wrong (if indeed it did, a contention not necessarily proved by Terry's death), but to embarrass the ATF. How else to explain why no officials from its partner agencies were called to testify? And how else to justify calling no fewer than three members of the Terry family, whose testimony, while heart-breaking, had no bearing on the details of the investigation?
It does the Terrys no more a service than it does Washington to skirt a substantive debate of Fast and Furious. Whatever its flaws, the program marked a major and welcome shift in the federal government's attempts to combat border gun-trafficking -- a fact not even its creators are willing to admit to now.
I spent much of early 2008 investigating arms-trafficking across the border for an article for Conde Nast Portfolio. I passed many hours with ATF agents in Arizona and Texas, interviewing them and attending gun shows with them. I also spent time at the smuggling routes on the border and in northern Mexico. What I found would have been more frightening had it not been so galling: on the one hand a huge gunrunning market that led directly to the deaths of thousands of Mexicans, and not a few Americans; and on the other a law enforcement agency trying to stop it with one hand tied behind its back. The problem was not that ATF agents weren't dedicated and smart -- many were -- but that they were prey to absurd congressional stipulations urged, most vociferously, by the NRA.