At long last, the first trial based on the events surrounding the violent 2010 murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry by Mexican drug smugglers wielding firearms supplied by the U.S. government began last week in a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom. A political firestorm erupted when it was revealed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), as part of a program dubbed “Operation Fast and Furious,” had provided Brian Terry’s murderers with the weapons used to take his life.
The details of Operation Fast and Furious in the nearly five years since the Terry murder have been documented through congressional investigations, committee hearings and Office of the Inspector General reports revealing government retaliation against whistleblowers, lies, stonewalling, cover-ups, email and document scandals, President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege, and the first-ever citation for contempt of Congress levied against a sitting U.S. attorney general.
After being forced to recant and withdraw their multiple denials, ATF and the Department of Justice (DOJ) finally acknowledged that the agency had facilitated sales to straw purchasers who turned over firearms purchased in the United States to Mexican drug gangs in the hope that federal agents might follow them up the criminal ladder as part of a now-discredited strategy called gun-walking. After the scandal broke, ATF and DOJ declared such tactics unacceptable and assured both Congress and the American people that changes have been made to prevent them from ever being used again.
These changes included new leadership at the ATF, a shuffling of certain ATF and DOJ executive staff, as well as enhanced oversight of investigations at both the ATF headquarters and DOJ levels to prevent what many insisted had been “rogue” tactics that wouldn’t have been tolerated by higher-ups if they had only known what was going on.
Congress and the public have been assured that these reforms or changes in Justice Department and ATF procedures will prevent any possibility of a repeat of the botched operation that was responsible for the murder of Brian Terry and allowed the U.S. government to get involved in the illegal trafficking of firearms to some of the most violent criminal organizations in the world. But those familiar with the workings of ATF and the governmental bureaucracy wonder if these “changes” will accomplish much of anything.
In fact, business as usual at the ATF has always included detailed oversight of operations on the ground. The agents implementing Fast and Furious were operating as independently as, say, the Ohio-based Internal Revenue Service agents the president tried to blame for Lois Lerner’s assault on conservative nonprofit organizations. I can assure you, there was no shortage of headquarters and DOJ oversight during the development and workings of Fast and Furious. In response to the outcry over gun-walking, the ATF and DOJ have simply relabeled the same old process as “change” and are selling it as providing new and improved ways of preventing future tragedy.
The real problem however, is much deeper and far more complicated. It’s not that there wasn’t a directive that says law enforcement is prohibited from arming violent criminals whose intent it is to use those weapons as tools to sow havoc and reap profits fertilized by the blood of countless innocents. It’s the fact that we needed such a directive in the first place.
Why is it even necessary to order law enforcement officials not to arm criminals?
This is not exclusive to the ATF — all federal law enforcement suffers from the same systemic problem. The regulations and oversight needed to prevent such things have always existed; it is the modern climate of law enforcement that needs to be changed. Until we do that, the system remains broken, and the avenues are wide open for repeats of what happened during Fast and Furious.
How do we make this change? We must begin by taking a look at ourselves. As a people, we must demand transparency, accountability and ethical behavior from our law enforcement agencies, regardless of our political beliefs and affiliations.
As federal agents and law enforcement officers, we must cease being instruments of politics, stop blindly following orders from on high that we know must lead to tragedy, refuse to be tools of obstruction, refuse to help cover up the consequences of wrongheaded policies, reject the hiding, deleting and destruction of evidence, and never again forgo what we know to be right and simply choose the course we believe to be safe or even career-enhancing.
Too often we have allowed ourselves to act like the co-conspirator who frustrates us during our legitimate investigations; the girlfriend who lies and supplies an alibi, the buddy who rushes in and removes the evidence before we can get a search warrant, and the business partner who helps launder the money. In the process, we become what we hate most and in doing so, fail those who should mean the most to us — those we have sworn to protect and serve.
We must do our job lawfully, ethically and always in the pursuit of justice. We must cooperate fully with lawful oversight investigations and hold our leaders to the same standards we are held, no longer sitting silently when we see them lying to legislators and the American people.
In short, we must begin to earn that trust and respect that we have mistakenly assumed was ours simply because of the badge we carry.
• John Dodson was the ATF agent who exposed the Operation Fast and Furious scandal and wrote this column in his capacity as a whistleblower and private citizen.
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