The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms is at it again, failing miserably to carry out a basic operation, without error upon error. Agents set up a fake store in Milwaukee last year as part of a larger program to target crime “hot spots”. The fake store called “Fearless Distributing” included merchandise such as designer clothes, purses, and jewelry, and the agents distributed business cards with a gun filled logo above the words “buy, sell, trade” insinuating they deal in illegal guns. After ten months the Milwaukee operation was shut down after the store was robbed, and an agents’ SUV was robbed, putting guns in the hands of criminals. As of right now, a fully automatic machine gun stolen from the ATF is still unaccounted for; almost certainly still on the streets of the city.
While the stolen guns have not yet turned up at any murder scenes, the case is reminiscent of the ATF operation “Fast and Furious”, which allowed thousands of guns to make it into the hands of Mexican drug cartels; guns which were meant to be monitored, but were immediately lost track of. Hundreds of the weapons showed up at the scenes of Mexican murders and massacres, and some at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. This newest ATF debacle raises serious concerns about the competency of the agency. It should also raise concerns about the goals and practices of Attorney General Eric Holder, who spent considerable effort hiding facts about “Fast and Furious” from a congressional investigation. It has still not been properly investigated, as President Obama exerted executive privilege over a document relating to the case, which was subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the botched gun running operation.
Had “Fast and Furious” been properly investigated, shoddy operations such as the one in Milwaukee may have been prevented, and a fully automatic machine gun may have been kept off the streets of crime “hot spots”. The operation was set up to arrest gun and drug traffickers, but failed to capture any serious high level criminals. Because of the high price the ATF operation was paying for guns, some of the people charged with gun crimes had simply bought guns at another store, and sold them to the undercover agents at “Fearless Distributing”. In all 145 guns were seized during the operation, ten of which were stolen. But the ATF left the neighborhood with one fewer machine gun in their possession.
The sting resulted in charges being filed against about 30 people, most for low-level drug sales and gun possession counts. But agents had the wrong person in at least three cases. In one, they charged a man who was in prison – as a result of an earlier ATF case – at the time agents said he was selling drugs to them.
Was this a Federal operation, or a team of mall security? Another notable debacle during the 10 month operation happened after the burglary of “Fearless Distributing” where $35,000 worth of goods were taken, and the operation was shut down. As agents and police vacated the building, they “left behind a sensitive document that listed names, vehicles and phone numbers of undercover agents”.
The machine gun and 2 other weapons were stolen from an agent’s explorer when it was broken into after being parked about a half mile from the fake store. One of the 2 pistols was recovered for the price of $1,400 but the machine gun was never located. The burglary at the store happened after ATF agents failed to reconnect a new alarm, having been told by their landlord that the line had been disconnected. The landlord, by the way, claims the ATF owes him $15,000 for the damage on the building during the burglary, an overflowed toilet, and exceeding the utility allotment.
Salkin said by going over on the $800 a month utility allotment and damage to walls, doors and carpeting, the ATF owes him about $15,000, which includes a month of lost rent.
The ATF has balked, saying there was less than $3,200 in damage and telling Salkin to return the security deposit. They told him to file a claim with the federal government and warned him to stop contacting them.
The ATF then threatened the landlord with trumped up harassment charges if he continued to try to recoup the damages caused by the ATF operation. Apparently the agency has no problem paying top dollar for stolen–or not–guns, and can cover the cost of $35,000 worth of stolen goods, but when it comes to paying rent and leaving a building in the same condition it was rented in, the agency finds that utterly unreasonable.
In an email to Salkin, ATF attorney Patricia Cangemi wrote, “If you continue to contact the Agents after being so advised your contacts may be construed as harassment under the law. Threats or harassment of a Federal Agent is of grave concern. Utilizing the telephone or a computer to perpetrate threats or harassment is also a serious matter.”
The email might as well have read, “stop trying to recoup your losses or we will arrest you and charge you with harassment of federal officers, and even if you do not go to jail, you will go broke defending yourself. Lay down, and accept the boot of the federal government on your face.”
And in regards to the utter incompetence of the agency to carry out its goal:
Gerald Nunziato, a retired ATF agent who supervised undercover operations, said he was shocked at the number of mistakes made during the operation…
Nunziato said he worked in undercover ATF storefront operations in the 1980s near Detroit. He said they too didn’t tell the landlord, but when they left, they fixed the property to make it as good or better than when they moved in. Nunziato said he could not fathom the Milwaukee agents just walking away from a damaged building.
“To back up a toilet? Not paying bills? And then damaging the building?” he said. “It seems like the planning of this case was not done very well. Looks like it was done as they went along.”
Residents of the Milwaukee neighborhood where “Fearless Distributors” was set up expressed deep concern that their neighborhood, which has been rebounding from high crime, would be the location of this operation. Drawing criminals, drugs, and weapons into their neighborhood, resident Lorraine
Jacobs and others feel betrayed by the ATF operation bringing drug dealers and gun sellers to their area.
“I feel like we were fooled, taken advantage of,” she said. “It is unfortunate for our neighborhood. We are trying to bring it up and we are close to that. We just didn’t need this.”
Jason Reichel, who lives near Jacobs, said he would have preferred the operation wasn’t in his neighborhood, but wouldn’t want to push it off on another area. He said he is concerned ATF did not have control over the operation, given the store was ripped off.
“I would expect that the ATF wouldn’t get robbed, that they would have security measures,” he said. “Maybe I watch too many movies. You would think it would be hard to rob an ATF operation.”
But the ATF apparently is no stranger to having its’ weapons lost and stolen. From 2002 to 2007 the ATF had 76 weapons lost or stolen, which is nearly double the number of guns lost and stolen under the FBI and DEA, when tallied per thousand agents. As the information about this operation is released at the same time as a federal push to limit legal gun ownership, this should raise serious concerns about the government’s ability to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. As the ATF continues to leak guns into the hands of criminals, the need for law abiding citizens to be able to protect themselves with guns remains paramount.
The initiative that starting targeting crime “hot spots” began in 2004, yet was found 2 years later by a U.S. Department of Justice report to have no evidence of reducing crime in the targeted areas. The agency has also been criticized for choosing crime “hot spots” which were already declining in violence and robberies, in order to claim that the operations were working. To read the entire report, check out this Journal Sentinel online article detailing the immense failures of the operation.