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With A New Scandal Growing, It’s Time For Congress To Fix The ATF

With A New Scandal Growing, It’s Time For Congress To Fix The ATF

The New York Times—which couldn’t be bothered to look into “Operation Fast and Furious,” in which the Obama-era ATF told gun store owners to let bad guys fronting for Mexican drug cartels buy all the guns they wanted—just led an investigative article this way: “Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used a secret, off-the-books bank account to rent a $21,000 suite at a NASCAR race, take a trip to Las Vegas and donate money to the school of one of the agent’s children, according to records and interviews.”

The Justice Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the ATF’s use of the secret bank account. The House Oversight and Government Reform committee is also looking into the matter.

According to the Times, “Agents also used the account to finance undercover operations around the country, despite laws prohibiting government officials from using private money to supplement their budgets.”

The Times even says the “revelations highlight the lax oversight at the ATF that allowed agents and informants to spend millions while avoiding the normal accounting process.” Of course, the Times wasn’t talking about lax oversight after Operation Fast and Furious broke, a U.S. Border Patrol agent was shot and killed, and the Obama administration orchestrated a massive, if obvious, cover-up.

The Department of Justice—the ATF is under its control—has so far denied any wrongdoing and has yet to say whether the ATF is still operating this secret bank account. The DOJ has referred to these as “management accounts.”

Undercover law enforcement is a complicated matter—sometimes undercover agents need to purchase things, and doing this with a government credit card would, uh, sort of blow their cover. But oversight is needed to prevent or approve expenditures like renting a suite at a NASCAR race or giving “thousands of dollars to the high school and volleyball team of the daughter of an ATF agent in Bristol.”

If the tone of this article sounds cynical, it is because the ATF has a history that should make the most reasonable journalist or politician look at them with suspicion.

Right now Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, are still waiting for answers after sending a letter to the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz asking why the IG’s office took nearly five years to complete an investigation into a shooting on Feb. 15, 2011, in Mexico in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata was murdered by members of the Zetas drug trafficking organization.The Department of Justice—the ATF is under its control—has so far denied any wrongdoing and has yet to say whether the ATF is still operating this secret bank account.

According to Senator Grassley and Rep. Chaffetz, the ATF had at least one legal opportunity to “seize” firearms in the U.S. that were being funneled to this Mexican drug gang, yet for some reason they decided not to do so.

The Obama administration was so keen to avoid explaining why Operation Fast and Furious happened that it hid the agency’s accountability behind claims of executive privilege. The congressional investigation was stonewalled for so long that Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt of Congress.

The ATF, which has about 2,000 special agents and about 2,700 other personnel, has had so many scandals in recent years that it is not possible to list them all in this article, much less put them in context, but here are a few:

  • After about a five-year audit, a September 2008 report by the Justice Department’sOffice of the Inspector General determined that the ATF lost 76 firearms and 418 laptop computers.
  • The ATF has been widely criticized for poor planning leading to the James Beck Shootout in 2001, which resulted in the immediate deaths of a deputy sheriff as well as the suspect, and later the suicide of ATF agent Jeff Ryan.
  • From May 2004 to August 2005 the ATF conducted an operation at eight gun shows in the Richmond, Va., area to nab straw purchasers.In a February 2006 House subcommittee hearing, one of the show’s owners said, “People were approached and discouraged from purchasing guns. Before attempting to purchase, they were interrogated and accused of being in the business without a license, detained in police vehicles, and gun buyer's homes were visited by police, and much more.” 
  • In 2013,the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a series of articles looking into what it called “rogue tactics” by the ATF for setting up storefront stings in major cities and recruiting informants with mental disabilities.
  • During the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, the careers of several ATF special agents turned whistleblowers were all but destroyed. (Check out ATF Agent John Dodson’s book The Unarmed Truth: My Fight to Blow the Whistle and Expose Fast and Furious for the inside story.)

Over its long history, the ATF has had an evolving mission as it has been shuffled between different government agencies. The ATF was formerly part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, having been formed in 1886 as the “Revenue Laboratory” when the U.S. government tried to enforce an income tax (it was found unconstitutional and took a constitutional amendment in 1913 to enact). So yes, those much-maligned “revenuers” of the early 20th century where basically early ATF agents.

The ATF later had a chief role in enforcing Prohibition. When the Volstead Act, which established Prohibition, was repealed in 1933, what we now know as the ATF was transferred from the Department of Justice back to the Department of the Treasury. If they had a hero, it was Special Agent Eliot Ness and several members of the “Untouchables” who worked for the Prohibition Bureau. In 1942, the ATF was given the responsibility of enforcing federal firearms laws.The ATF … has had so many scandals in recent years that it is not possible to list them all in this article …

After Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002 into law, which among many other things moved the ATF from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Justice. The ATF’s biggest scandals would come as it worked under the Obama administration’s often-political DOJ.

Some critics of the ATF have since called for the agency to be eliminated and for its responsibilities to be folded into the FBI.

In 2015, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced a bill titled the “ATF Elimination Act.” At the time Sensenbrenner said, “The ATF is a scandal-ridden, largely duplicative agency that lacks a clear mission. Its 'Framework' is an affront to the Second Amendment and yet another reason why Congress should pass the ATF Elimination Act."

Even the liberal think-tank the Center for American Progress, in 2015, called for the ATF to be abolished and folded into the FBI.

Now, with a new scandal brewing about expenditures from a secret ATF bank account, perhaps it is time for Congress to find a way to give the ATF clear mission statements and rigorous oversight from an agency that won’t play politics with our Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Frank Miniter is the author of The New York Times bestseller The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide—Recovering the Lost Art of Manhood. He is also the author of This Will Make a Man of You and The Future of the Gun. He is a contributor to Forbes and writes for many publications. His website is FrankMiniter.com.