The Justice Department’s inspector general said a flawed undercover sting in Milwaukee appears to raise “significant management issues relating to the oversight and management” of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to a letter sent to congressional leaders.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz, whose office does independent investigations, wrote that problems revealed in the Milwaukee operation by a Journal Sentinel investigation are of particular concern given the agency’s failures in its Operation Fast and Furious.
In that operation, agents in Arizona encouraged the sale of more than 2,000 firearms to gun traffickers but lost track of many of the weapons. Many ended up at crime scenes in Mexico and at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed. The inspector general’s report on Fast and Furious was sharply critical of the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office, finding “a significant lack of oversight” by both agencies.
Horowitz’s letter is the strongest connection between the failures of Fast and Furious and the operation in Milwaukee last year, which was beset by a series of foul-ups and failures, including agents having their guns stolen, the undercover storefront being burglarized and sensitive law enforcement documents being carelessly handled, the Journal Sentinel found. An ATF machine gun, stolen from an agent’s vehicle, remains unrecovered.
Horowitz wrote the letter to U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who had asked Horowitz to conduct an independent investigation of the Milwaukee operation.
The ATF has completed its investigation of the Milwaukee operation and forwarded it to the Justice Department. Horowitz told the congressmen he will decide whether to conduct his own investigation after reviewing the ATF’s report.
In his letter, Horowitz wrote that he has been closely following the Milwaukee operation since it was first reported by the Journal Sentinel and recently had a meeting with ATF officials about it.
Horowitz noted one recommendation in his report on Operation Fast and Furious was for the ATF to re-evaluate and strengthen its internal review to ensure that matters involving “sensitive circumstances,” “special requirements” and “otherwise illegal activity” are sufficiently evaluated.
“The Milwaukee operation appears to highlight the importance of this and other recommendations from our report,” Horowitz wrote in the March 22 letter, which was obtained Tuesday by the Journal Sentinel.
Several members of Congress, from both parties, have demanded answers about the operation from the ATF and Attorney General Eric Holder. So far, the agency has not responded but is expected to once the Department of Justice reviews the matter.
ATF officials have acknowledged mistakes were made but stand by the technique of using undercover storefronts, which they have used in cities around the country.
This month, Scott Sweetow, special agent in charge of the agency’s St. Paul Field Division, said procedural and administrative mistakes were made in the Milwaukee operation, but he also defended it. He said undercover storefronts will continue to be used by the ATF but changes would be made. He did not say what would change. The St. Paul Field Division covers Milwaukee-based agents. Sweetow took over in January.
Last week, ATF spokesman Mike Campbell said of the Milwaukee operation: “We are human and do make mistakes at times and that is when you need good oversight. That is when we go back and see what lessons need to be learned.”
Campbell said every aspect of the Milwaukee operation was reviewed, including the selection of the location in the Riverwest area. People who live near the store said they were disturbed the government would draw gun-carrying felons and drug dealers into their neighborhood.
Campbell said storefronts have been effectively used in other cities for years, not necessarily to build major investigations, but to go after guns and drugs at the street level.
“It is one of the investigative strategies we use,” he said.
The operation resulted in charges against about 30 people, most on minor drug and gun counts. Some of the defendants face long prison terms, largely because of previous criminal history.
A federal prosecutor in Milwaukee took the unusual step of criticizing the operation at a sentencing this month, saying it was not the best use of resources. He also said he wished more criminals with violent histories had been caught in the sting.
The operation was plagued by problems including an ATF agent’s guns being stolen and the sting storefront, which went by the name Fearless Distributing, being burglarized of merchandise that the agency reported was worth nearly $40,000. ATF agents recommended charges against at least three of the wrong people, and the counts against those defendants were quickly dropped.
The agents also left behind a sensitive ATF operation plan at the store after they cleared out. It listed undercover officers’ names, cellphones and vehicle information along with signals used by law enforcement during arrests of suspects.
David Salkin, who unknowingly rented to the ATF for its undercover operation, said the agency owes him about $15,000 because of damage to the building, unpaid utility bills and lost rent. The agency has contended the amount is much smaller.
When Salkin asked the agency to pay him, ATF attorney Patricia Cangemi warned him to stop: “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.”
Please read the original article written by John Diedrich and comments on the Journal Sentinel website.