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Close Down The ATF

hand holding up an unlit cigarette vertically against an out-of-focus natural background

Pop quiz: Who runs the FBI?

If you said James Comey, you are both correct and at least a reasonably well-informed citizen. It isn’t too hard a question, especially considering the controversies in which Comey was embroiled during last year’s election. But the FBI directorship is a prominent, closely vetted position, and the person who holds that title is usually a pretty high-profile public figure.

Now, for extra credit: Who runs the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know. Practically nobody outside his immediate family knows that Thomas Brandon has been acting director of this scandal-plagued law enforcement agency since 2015. That was the year his predecessor, B. Todd Jones, quit amid a controversy over his proposal to ban certain forms of ammunition and certain storefront gun sale “sting” operations that critics called abusive and unfair.

Critics also blamed Jones for failing to correct oversight problems that led to the departure of his own predecessor, Kenneth Melson, who was acting director at the height of the “Fast and Furious” affair, in which the agency ended up furnishing high-powered weapons to Mexican criminals in an attempt to track down drug cartel leaders. Melson was reassigned within the Justice Department in 2011. You may vaguely remember the “gunwalking” scandal, but most likely you have never heard of Jones or Melson either.

Nor have you likely heard of William McMahon, who as acting deputy director of ATF was the most senior official to be held responsible (if that’s the word) for the misguided Fast and Furious initiative. It turned out that, even before he was forced out of his ATF post, McMahon had taken a new position in the private sector while still collecting his accumulated government leave, in violation of agency policy.

So even if you are in the minority of readers who has heard anything about ATF recently, it is safe to assume nothing you have heard is good.

The New York Times reported last week that ATF is the secret defendant in an almost-secret lawsuit charging agency employees with siphoning money from bogus cigarette sales to fund their own unaccountable slush fund. This secret fund is to be used for paying informants and other investigative activities “off the books,” meaning those conducted in contravention of the controls that were supposedly installed in the wake of the Fast and Furious disaster.

According to the Times, U.S. Tobacco Cooperative claims that it was “swindled out of $24 million” total. Records show that at least $2 million of this sum went into the pockets of ATF informants, who maintain that they were simply cooperating with undercover law enforcement activities and have done nothing wrong. While many of the details of the case are still secret, those that the Times reported revealed an unsettling picture of an agency walking the line between investigating smuggling operations and conducting them. For an agency that drew fire only a few years earlier for selling guns to criminals and failing to retrieve them, it is not a good look.

ATF is not only an agency that seems never to learn. It is one that seems to have no purpose distinguishable from the matters most of us believe should be the FBI’s purview. Of course, the FBI is not a perfect institution either – no institution is – but many of its historical flaws were recognized and addressed in the years after founding director J. Edgar Hoover left the scene. Americans, for the most part, trust the FBI. On the other hand, most Americans have scarcely heard of ATF, know almost nothing about it and, given recent events, have no reason to trust it.

Even allowing for the elements of bias, logical leaps and other imperfections common in New York Times investigations – elements that are not apparent, at least from my distance and at this stage, in its report on the ATF tobacco lawsuit – America just doesn’t need an unaccountable, largely ungoverned federal law enforcement agency that is prone to run off the rails. There is every indication that it has one regardless. When and how ATF got this way barely matters.

Defenders would probably argue that the FBI has more pressing things to do than chase down smuggled cigarettes, moonshine booze (to the extent such a thing still exists) and low-level illegal gun sales. Fair enough. If those crimes are important enough to state and local governments, let them use their own law enforcement resources to pursue those matters. Then local citizens know exactly whom to hold responsible for the outcomes, good or bad. If the problem becomes big enough to require federal law enforcement resources, it will be big enough to add to the plates of the FBI director and the attorney general.

Whatever good ATF is doing can be done elsewhere. Fold the good parts into the FBI and get rid of the rest.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author. We welcome additional perspectives in our comments section as long as they are on topic, civil in tone and signed with the writer's full name. All comments will be reviewed by our moderator prior to publication.

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4 Responses to "Close Down The ATF"

  • John Shipley
    February 28, 2017 - 8:59 am

    I served in the FBI as a Special Agent for 14 years. Prior to that, I was an Army Officer and a helicopter pilot. During my tenure with the FBI, I was wrongfully arrested, prosecuted and convicted relating to a firearm that was recovered in Mexico. It wasn’t until after my conviction that US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed on duty with a gun the BATF allowed to be trafficked to Mexico. Then one honest BATF Agent, John Dodson (a hero in my book), did the right thing and broke the “Fast and Furious” scandal to America.

    I served two years in federal prison for crimes I never committed. I spent three years on probation and to this day, I am still a convicted felon. I have contacted Congressmen, politicians, lobbyists and anyone else I can think of. I appealed my case to the US Supreme Court but they would not even listen. I wrote a Pro Se Habeas, but it was denied. The BATF’s informant, a gun store owner on the US/Mexican border, sold the gun to a Mexican gun trafficker that BATF had under investigation. Sound familiar? It should. The BATF does not care who they destroy or kill. They only care about pushing their agenda and receiving more funding and power. They have abused the American people’s rights repeatedly and only received minor slaps on the wrist, occasionally. They are the bully no one stands up to. They continue to trample our rights without consequences.

    I am currently attending law school and I wish there was someone out there could help my injustice come to light. Not only do I want my name cleared for crimes I did not commit, but I want the people responsible for this intentional injustice to be held accountable. If that never happens, I will survive and thrive in my future legal profession, but they will continue to abuse others. When they are allowed to break the rules without repercussions, they will continue the pattern of abuse. The American people need to hold government accountable through peaceful, legal means. That is our duty to our Country and our children. I love this Country, but I fear unethical people in positions of power.

    I watched Attorney General Eric Holder lie to Congress under oath and there were absolutely no repercussions for his actions. I watched President Obama, who touted transparency, claim Executive privilege over all things Fast and Furious so that the American public could not get the facts of what actually happened and who was responsible. Brain Terry’s family deserves the truth. He served with honor and gave his life for this Country. Withholding the truth from his family amounts to spitting on his grave.

    Does the BATF need to be abolished? I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is we need to hold people accountable for their actions and work towards making things better for our children. That is what our forefathers wanted and that is why we have a country called America. To do anything less subverts our duty to our Country and our fellow man and woman.

  • Robert M. Trent
    February 28, 2017 - 4:26 pm

    I’m very sad having just read John’s miserable experience. I was not aware of the NYT article on the BATF, until I stumbled across this blog.

    I am a former uniformed patrol agent of the U.S. Border Patrol, and later served as a special agent in the Anti-Smuggling Unit (ASU), and OCDETF.

    As a current member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBPO), I follow Fast & Furious (F&F) very closely. I’m waiting for President Trump to have AG Sessions investigate Fast & Furious, and go after those responsible for the murder of Brian Terry, as he promised the Terry family.

    Just to give you an idea of how many people had to be involved in this debacle, one has to know that this operation was approved and funded by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) program, which is a major crme fighting component of the U.S. Department of Justice. All OCDETF approved operations must be reviewed and approved from the local Office of the U.S. Attorney, in this case the Phoenix, AZ office.

    A very detailed operational proposal is supposed to be written by the law enforcement agency seeking to initiate and lead the operation, in this case the BATF. Prior to the U.S. Attoney approving the proposal, it must first be examined by each of the nine member agencies of the OCDETF, which includes FBI, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), IRS/CID, and the U.S. Marshall’s Service. Senior agents from these agencies are designated as fuul time representatives to the OCDETF program. They are to make sure their are no conflicts with other on going investigations, and they contribute information which might relate to the case.

    Once the operation is approved at the local level, it proceeds up to Main Justice for further review by career federal prosecutors of the OCDETF.

    All of this protocol is spelled out in the OCDETF Guidelines. Among those guidelines, is a section that deals with “sensitive issues,” which might arise during the operation. Allowing weapons to be purchased and knowingly permitting them to be transported across an international border would be considered sensitive, I assure you.

    What should of happened, in the case of F&F, if there was such a written proposal, it should have never made it past the first line supervisors desk at BATF/Phoenix. However, we do know it was funded from DoJ for well over a year, so someone high up had to approve.

    Now with the sensitive international aspects, the career prosecutors should have provided the U.S. Secretary of State with a full disclosure, and a detailed briefing. Hillary Clinton was in office during the approval process of F&F, and she has publicly denied any knowledge of F&F, until she read or heard about it through the press and media.

    If you believe that SECSTATE wasn’t consulted, who made that decision, certainly not a BATF supervisor, or even a career federal prosecutor. I’d say Eric Holder would have been the deciding official, if not higher.

    By the way, wher was the outrage from the SECSTATE over not being informed?

    It did come out that Dennis Welch, the former Arizona U.S. Attorney actually vomitted in a waste basket, while being questioned about F&F.

    I think a good lead that needs to be followed up is the questioning of Kevin Michael O’Reilly, the current number two at the U.S. Embassy in Panama. During the Rep. Isssa committee hearings on F&F, it was learned that William Newell, the former Special Agent in Charge BATF/Phoenix was frequently briefing his old friend O’Reilly, who at the time was the Director of North American Affairs of the White House’s National Security Council.

    Oddly enough, the White House Counsel refused to allow O’Reilly to come before the committee, or be questioned in any way shape or form about F&F. Even when Issa supposedly pushed for it, the White House declared O’Reilly wasn’t available, because he had been dispatched to Iraq on a mission.

    Another couple of people that should be able to shed a lot of light on the subject of F&F are two former Directors of the OCDETF program during the lead up and actual operational period of F&F. One, James Dinan, is currently serving as the First Assistant U.S. Attorney for D.C.. The other is Tom Padden, who I believe is still prcticing law in the Northern Virginia area.

    Yes, lots of work left undone. I think a special prosecutor would be the best way to go. It should make for a great book and movie. I hope they cast John Dodson playing himself.

    Until then, hang in there John, there is light at the end of the tunnel!

  • Hugh J Brien
    February 28, 2017 - 8:53 pm

    I read John’s and Robert Trent’s pieces and hope that Trump will request Sessions or a special prosecutor to investigate F&F. Retired chief of US Border Patrol,never worked in OCDEFT. I hope that Sessions will go after the murderers of Agent Brian Terry.!!