Congress calls ATF sting tactics ‘almost unimaginable’


Calling the ATF’s tactics appalling, alarming, disturbing and “almost unimaginable,” congressional members on Thursday slammed the agency for how it conducted storefront stings across the nation and renewed their demand for answers.

The sharply worded letter is the latest salvo from members of Congress to U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director B. Todd Jones regarding the undercover operations.  

Members of both parties have been demanding answers from the agency and Jones since last January when a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation exposed a series of foul-ups and failures in an ATF sting in Milwaukee dubbed Operation Fearless.

Thursday’s letter — signed by lawmakers who led the congressional probe into the agency’s flawedFast and Furious operation in Arizona — follows an investigation published by the Journal Sentinel in December that detailed how the ATF used rogue tactics in storefront stings across the nation, from Portland, Ore., to Pensacola, Fla.

“Much as in operation Fast and Furious and Operation Fearless, it appears that poor management was the norm in these other storefront operations,” the letter said.

The letter was signed by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; U.S. Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the chamber’s head investigative panel; and U.S. Rep. Robert Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, whose name was not on this letter, signed similarly worded letters critical of the ATF in the past.

The Journal Sentinel found that the ATF used mentally disabled individuals to promote their operations in at least five cities — including paying one to get a tattoo on his neck advertising their storefront — and later had them charged with gun and drug crimes. The tattoo was of a giant squid smoking a joint.

In Milwaukee, three guns belonging to the case’s lead undercover agent, including a machine gun, were stolen. The machine gun remains missing.

Across the country, agents put stings near schools and churches, increasing arrest numbers and penalties — and attracting juveniles with free video games and alcohol. They paid so much for guns and other goods that in some cities it encouraged burglaries. In some cases, defendants bought guns at stores such as Gander Mountain and sold them to undercover agents hours later for more than double what they paid.

“In all of these cases, ATF apparently wasted taxpayer dollars on purchases,” the lawmakers wrote, citing two examples detailed in the Journal Sentinel’s reporting, including one where a defendant bought a gun at the store for $700 and sold it to undercover agents hours later for $2,000.

“Operations like this raise questions as to whether ATF was manufacturing crime that would not have otherwise occurred, effectively increasing the overall crime rates in the neighborhoods where the storefronts were located,” the letter said.

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