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.
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
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.
Let's start with the obscenely irresponsible laws that cover gun sales
in America. For instance, anyone without a criminal record can legally purchase
as many rifles and other long guns as they want in the United States. You read that correctly.
If you have no criminal record, you can walk into a gun dealer and buy 100 AR-15
rifles, 200 AK-47s, the store's entire inventory of shotguns, or a .50-caliber
sniper rifle that can take down a low-flying aircraft -- as long as you have
the cash. Not only can the dealer sell them to you, but he doesn't even have to
notify anyone unless you buy multiple handguns as well. One of the buyers being
surveilled under Fast and Furious, an Arizona man named Uriel Patino, bought
about 720 guns -- legally.
There are roughly 100,000 licensed gun dealers in the United States.
Most of them are gun stores, pawn shops, sporting-goods stores, and the like,
but many are so-called "kitchen table" dealers who sell secondhand
guns out of their businesses, homes, or even cars. While reporting, I took a
look at a pair of assault rifles in the office of a plumbing-supply salesman
near Dallas who peddles guns on the side. I also learned of a Mexican drug trafficker
who'd opened a series of gun stores in Texas to cut out the middleman. That's
how easy it is to legally sell guns. If you have a criminal record and want to
avoid scrutiny, you can go to one of these kitchen-table dealers or to one of
the thousands of gun shows that take place around the country each year, where
you can find people who claim to be selling out of their private collection.
They don't need a license to do so, and you don't have to submit to a
background check. All you need is money and identification showing you're over
18 years old.
This is what the ATF faces as it tries to head off gun-trafficking
across the 2,000-mile border with Mexico with only a few hundred agents.
Lawmakers -- by no means all of them Republicans -- have seen to it that the
agency is as understaffed and underfunded as possible. Between 1973, when the
ATF was founded, and 1998, the number of field agents increased by nine. Nine
agents. It has half the budget and half the manpower of the DEA, and it has
been laboring under a series of acting directors since 2006, when the NRA
successfully lobbied Congress to require Senate confirmation for the job.
Still, William Newell, the ATF special agent who oversaw Fast and
Furious, and his agents in Phoenix did what they could. A devoted, articulate
lifetime civil servant who spent part of his childhood in Latin America and
then cut his teeth as an agent in Colombia during the drug wars of the 1990s,
Newell was under no illusions about his agency's beleaguered standing in
Washington. He didn't let it stop him, however. When I interviewed him in 2008,
he showed me "the vault," a large room with racks and bins full of
guns his agents had caught before they could cross the border. They were the
fruits of Operation Gunrunner, a Bush administration initiative. (The ATF's
policy is to destroy the guns it seizes, though many police departments around
the country resell them on the secondary market, appallingly enough.) Newell
had been implementing Operation Gunrunner so effectively that he was seen as a
possible future head of the ATF.
It was remarkable he'd seized even those guns, however, given how
needlessly hobbled his agency is by Washington. Congress prohibits the ATF from
employing many basic tools of modern law enforcement. For instance, it is
forbidden from creating a national registry of guns or gun owners. The U.S.
government keeps track of everyone who owns a car or a house, but not a gun
(nor even hundreds of guns or caches of military-grade weaponry). Gun buyers
are required to fill out ATF sales forms, but the agency can't systemize or
even collect them; they're kept by dealers. The number of dealers who knowingly
aid in trafficking is miniscule, and the ATF knows who many of them are. But in
most cases it's not allowed to inspect a dealer unannounced more than once a
Meanwhile, the ATF's National
Tracing Center, which would be the hub of any serious attempt to combat
gun-trafficking, houses hundreds of millions of documents, but thanks to Congress
it can't make them searchable by name. And, preposterously, there is no federal
law explicitly forbidding international gun-trafficking. For years lawmakers
have proposed such laws, and for years they've been defeated, including by
Democrat-controlled Congresses. In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed the
Convention on Illicit Firearms Trafficking. Congress has refused to ratify it
ever since, under pressure from the gun lobby.
This means that when gun-trafficking cases are brought at all, they are
brought under weak catchall anti-smuggling laws. U.S. attorneys in Arizona for
years refused to help the ATF build gun cases, knowing prosecutions would
likely result in, at best, minor sentences for straw purchasers who buy guns
for criminal organizations but have no impact beyond that. And so the ATF,
though an investigative agency, was relegated for years to interdiction. Agents
arrested small fry and seized small caches, knowing that they were dipping a
bucket into the ocean. For every gun they got, hundreds more made it over the
border. Had they wanted to, Issa and his committee could have learned much of
this from their very own Congressional
Research Service's 2009 report on border gun-trafficking, or a larger study by the
Government Accountability Office.
Operation Fast and Furious was part of a plan to change the situation.
In 2009, Barack Obama's administration made combating gun-trafficking on the
border a priority, and Burke, who was then the new Arizona U.S. Attorney,
agreed to help. The goal was to investigate and build a serious case
against a gunrunning network connected with the Sinaloa cartel, one of the
biggest drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico. Building off
the successes of Operation Gunrunner, Burke's office, along with the ATF, DEA,
ICE, and the FBI, created a new Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. Its
operational name was Fast and Furious.
The aim of Fast and
Furious was to investigate, and not, as the ATF had grown accustomed to,
interdict. Instead of arresting the so-called "straw purchasers" who
buy the guns and pass them on (again, legally, provided they pass a background
check), Fast and Furious called for agents to surveil them and try to follow
the flow of guns, to move beyond the pawns to the larger players. Of course,
this is what investigators and detectives who don't work at agencies hobbled by
their elected overseers do every day: allow things to be bought and sold and
moved so that they can map out criminal organizations and get to their highest
If their testimony is to
be believed, a number of agents newly posted to Phoenix and Fast and Furious were
nonetheless shocked when they were instructed to "let guns walk," as
it's known. According to ATF personnel I spoke with, these agents had no idea
of the scale of the gun-trafficking problem when they arrived in Arizona. They
were used to interdiction and apparently were not properly read into the larger
aims of Fast and Furious. A number of these agents delivered impassioned pleas
at the hearings in July, expressing their unshakable opposition to the very
idea of letting guns walk. (Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley, always happy to
impugn his fellow federal employees, cherry-picked their best lines for a pair
of mostly useless and histrionic reports.)
The agents' indignation
was duly righteous, but none felt it worth mentioning, apparently, that letting
guns walk was precisely the point of Fast and Furious. None of them dared
mention what is common knowledge on the border -- that scores of American guns
walk every day, regardless of surveillance, because buying and moving them is
so easy and the ATF too hampered to stop them.
Nor, sadly, did Newell,
the most enduring target of Issa's ire, mention that. During his
testimony, Newell mostly stared down at a
prepared statement, offering evasive and feckless answers. He offered no
explanation of Fast and Furious or of the colossal problem of the border's
illicit gun market, and he certainly didn't mention -- out of good manners or
professional restraint, one assumes -- the hoops that these same congressmen
have made him jump through merely in order to do his job.
GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images