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Column: ATF Needs to Clean the Manure Off Its Boots Now

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

WASHINGTON — ATF has stepped into a big pile of manure and it hasn’t been doing a very good job of trying to clean off its boots.

I’m referring to the dust up over Operation Fast and Furious , a program out of Arizona in which ATF let “straw purchasers” buy guns and transport them to Mexico, all with the hopes of tracing them to the Mexican cartels.

The problem is that ATF couldn’t possibly keep tabs on all those guns. Some reportedly were used to kill some federal agents. When word of the program got out, folks like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia) demanded answers.

ATF has been slow to produce answers for Congress.  Grassley is now accusing ATF of stonewalling.

The press has had a field day. One story after another has appeared in papers and on television stations around the country.  None of them good. ATF looks like the stuff it has stepped in.

“The feeling is that somebody was sleeping at the switch, although they had good intentions,” one ATF official told me. “It was not a well thought out plan. I think there’s a lot of finger pointing right now.”

Agents say clearly letting so many guns walk was a big mistake. The goal was too ambitious, the risk too great. Maybe the agency was responding to criticism that it needed to go after bigger fish. That’s still not an excuse.

atf file photo

Regardless, agents say they’ve been left in the dark. The ATF honchos at headquarters aren’t telling them anything. They’ve had to rely on  information from the media. Many have been demoralized by the mess.

Plus, it’s caused a strain between Washington and the Mexican officials, who feel that the Americans don’t respect them. Let’s face it: It’s highly unlikely ATF would let that many guns walk if the guns wound up in the hands of American criminals instead of the Mexican cartels.

It was a bad plan. And the Justice Department needs to shoulder some blame since someone fairly high up knew about it and gave the blessing.

Attorney Gen. Eric Holder Jr. says he never gave the OK.

“Questions have been raised by ATF agents about the way in which some of these operations have been conducted. I think those questions have to be taken seriously, and on that basis I have asked the Inspector General to look at it,” Holder recently said.

Some are taking a wait and see attitude. They say the facts haven’t all come out. And cracking down on straw buyers isn’t always so easy because their true intent — buying guns on behalf of other people —  can be disguised and made to look legit.

That being said, ATF and the Justice Department need to come clean — as soon as possible.  Whenever I speak before law enforcement groups, be it a police precinct or at a university — I tell them: “Get as much of the story out as possible and be truthful. If you hide things or lie, the press will turn one story into five.”

Best to clean up the mess before the manure becomes a permanent fixture on those boots.

(Just in: CBS reports that Kenneth Melson, head of ATF,  has decided not to testify before a Senate hearing on Thursday where he would likely be asked about the gun program. Not good. He’s the boss. He needs to get out there in public.)


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Comment from harrythebody
Time April 1, 2011 at 10:08 am

“The feeling is that somebody was sleeping at the switch, although they had good intentions,” one ATF official told me. “It was not a well thought out plan. I think there’s a lot of finger pointing right now.”

These comments by an ATF official can be ATF’s epitaph. The whole idea of knowingly allowing any gun (and that’s singular – never mind thousands) into the hands of the unknown (and in this case narcotraffickers and criminals) on the part of law enforcement suggests a level of culpability that cries for imprisonment. This “idea” shouldn’t have made it past the RAC level, never mind to a HQ Deputy Assistant Director for the SouthWest region and above who all approved this nonsense. Subpoena’s need to fly. Testimony under oath and accountability and punishment of managers. ATF will never do it internally. I doubt the DOJ IG is up to the task as well. Its on Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassely who have so far taken up the challange and shown the tenacity and courage to make this right.

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