In 2011, B. Todd Jones took over as head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) – first as Acting Director and later as Director. The Bureau was in need of new leadership in the wake of Operation Fast and Furious, and his mission was to help the agency recover from that humiliating and dangerous scandal.
Just over a year ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Operation Fearless, an undercover storefront operation that took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during Director Jones’ tenure. Everything about Operation Fearless went wrong: ATF agents allowed convicted felons to leave the store, Fearless Distributing, armed and dangerous. The store was burglarized and $39,000 worth of merchandise was lost — ATF had neglected to install an alarm system. In a separate incident, three weapons, including a machine gun, were stolen from an ATF vehicle. And agents hired a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who had an IQ in the 50s, to assist with store operations – and then arrested him for his involvement.
Fearless was part of ATF’s Monitored Case Program, which was created after Operation Fast and Furious to ensure careful oversight of field operations from ATF Headquarters. Unfortunately, in the case of Operation Fearless, this new management scheme failed miserably and ATF let a deeply flawed operations move forward. The agency needs to chart a better path.
When we learned about this, Chairman Goodlatte (R-Va.) and former Chairman Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) of the House Judiciary Committee, Ranking Member Grassley (R-Iowa) of the Senate Judiciary Committee and I immediately wrote to ATF requesting that the agency take a hard look at these reckless practices. Only after receiving our letter did the Director order an internal review – even though ATF agents were aware that the operation had been badly botched. We were assured that the disastrous operation was an isolated incident.
Through our investigation, however, we learned that ATF mismanaged similar undercover operations all over the country, specifically in Oregon, New Mexico, Kansas, Georgia, and Florida. These storefront stings followed an incredibly reckless pattern: agents allowed felons to leave the store with weapons, exploited mentally handicapped people, and failed to take precautions to protect the stores from theft.
In fact, these dangerous tactics may actually be increasing crime in the very neighborhoods where it is executing such risky operations. ATF has an important public safety portfolio, but its actions do not inspire public confidence. Three years after the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, ATF management has yet to fire any employees for their role in Operation Fast and Furious. That is inexcusable. ATF promised to change its culture, implement new policies and procedures, and hold agents accountable for their actions. As the details of Operation Fearless come to light, it’s difficult to see what has changed.