How the ATF Manufactures Crime

by Charles C. W. Cooke
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation exposes the agency’s shameful tactics.

Since the president was reelected in November of last year, a good deal of poison has been poured into Washington’s grimy alphabet soup. Among the departments that have become embroiled in scandal are the IRS, the DOJ, the DOE, the EPA, the NSA, the USDA, and, of course, the ATF. This week, the lattermost is back in the news — and for good reason.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is probably best known these days for the failure of its disastrous Fast and Furious scheme — a botched initiative that aimed to give American guns to Mexican cartels first and to ask questions later. Under pressure, the administration was quick to imply that the mistake was an aberration. But a watchdog report, published last week by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suggests that the caprice, carelessness, and downright incompetence that marked the disaster was no accident. In fact, that it is endemic in the ATF.

After a bungled sting attracted the suspicion of the Milwaukee press earlier this year, reporters started to examine similar enterprises in the rest of the country. What they found astonished them. Among the tactics they discovered ATF agents employing were using mentally disabled Americans to help run unnecessary sting operations; establishing agency-run “fronts” in “safe zones” such as schools and churches; providing alcohol, drugs, and sexual invitations to minors; destroying property and then expecting the owners to pick up the tab; and hiring felons to sell guns to legal purchasers. Worse, perhaps, in a wide range of cases, undercover agents specifically instructed individuals to behave in a certain manner — and then arrested and imprisoned them for doing so. This is government at its worst. And it appears to be standard operating procedure.

As with Fast and Furious, the primary objective of the ATF’s stings seems not to be to fight a known threat but instead to manufacture crime. Across the country, the agency has set up shops in which it attempts to facilitate or to encourage illegal behavior, and it has drafted citizens into the scheme without telling them that they were involved. It is fishing — nonchalantly, haphazardly, even illegally. And the consequences can go hang.

Some of the stories are heartrending. Tony Bruner, a convicted felon with an IQ of 50, was hired in Wichita to work at “Bandit Trading,” a fake store that agents had established as a front. Bruner didn’t realize that he was working for the ATF — he thought he had finally found a steady job. But the agents knew how valuable Bruner could be to them, recognizing immediately that he was disabled (or “slow-headed,” in one agent’s unlovely phrase) and that he would therefore be easy to manipulate. Having established his trust, agents asked Bruner to find guns for them, which he agreed to do. Eventually, Bruner got rather good at it and ended up arranging dozens of gun sales.

“I was just doing my job. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” Bruner said in court. “They tricked me into believing I was doing a good job. And they’d tell me I was doing a good job, pat me on the back, telling me, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ We’d hug each other and stuff like that, and they treated me like they cared about me. I told ’em I had a felony, I’m trying to stay out of trouble.”

Alas, the agency had no intention whatsoever of allowing Bruner to stay out of trouble. Indeed, it ensured that the opposite was the case. Having used him to arrange a series of illegal sales, agents arrested him and charged him “with more than 100 counts of being a felon in possession of a weapon.” As with most of the victims of the program, Bruner was persuaded to enter a guilty plea instead of risk a trial. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. According to the Journal Sentinel’s report, “the judge told him he was getting a big break because he could have gotten 10 to 12 years.” But Bruner didn’t see it this way, telling the judge that he thought he might be killed in prison by inmates who believed that he had been willingly working with authorities.

At best the ATF’s new techniques constitute illegal entrapment. At worst, they are downright tyrannical. Entrapment is legally permitted if a suspect initiates a crime in the presence of an undercover agent or if he can reasonably be deemed to have been predisposed to commit the crime when offered an opportunity to do so. But it is difficult to see how either of these tests is being met in the Bruner case or in others. Indeed, cases using entrapment are often thrown out of court if the government is seen to have put too much pressure on a suspect or to have made breaking the law so easy or attractive as to render restraint impossible. Per the paper’s report, ATF tactics involved offering ridiculous prices for firearms to attract straw purchasers, requesting that suspects buy specific firearms that carry tougher sentences, or, as it did in one case, showing a known felon how to saw off a shotgun so that they could charge him with a more serious violation when he did it. Will anyone claim that these tactics are legal?

That they are immoral, too, needs less spelling out. Because no formal arrangements were made with the individuals whom the agency selected for involuntary cooperation, there were no means by which they could claim protection for their behavior after the fact. In other words: The federal government knowingly ruined their lives without telling them. And for what? Well, apparently to try to pick low-hanging fruit.

At each step, the behavior is unjustifiable: Randomly fishing for criminals is outrageous in and of itself; doing so when there is no known threat is worse; and being aware that you are probably sentencing your chosen accomplices to more time in prison in the pursuit of something intangible is worse still. But involving those who are non compos mentis? Ruining their lives, too? For this, there is a special place in hell.

Sometimes, in the course of legitimate investigation, unfortunate things happen. But to contrive these schemes on a whim is something else altogether. As a people, we grudgingly allow the government to conduct surveillance and infiltration schemes if we believe that it has an exceptionally good reason to do so. The ATF didn’t. Typically, sting operations are reserved for the neutralization of known threats — organized crime, terrorism — and they are designed to keep tabs on people who have already been identified as suspects or as known participants in illegal or dangerous behavior. Given the ATF’s finite resources and the wealth of problems in America already, one might ask the agency why it feels the need to go around inventing crimes.

It is possible that the American people are experiencing scandal fatigue. The sheer number of embarrassing revelations about the federal government this year probably made it difficult for the citizenry to focus in on the details of each and almost certainly rendered each subsequent revelation less impressive. Nevertheless, even the least interested of spectators is aware there is a broader problem here — and one caused by the government’s growing too big and too unwieldy.

Indeed, even the president knows. In the course of pushing back against the rather reasonable implication that poor management might have had at least something to do with the disasters that have occurred on his watch, Barack Obama last week inadvertently told the truth. “The challenge that we have going forward,” he told Chris Matthews, “is not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization” but that “we have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly.”

This is true. And, as the Journal Sentinel’s stellar investigative work has reminded us, there are few more badly designed than the ATF.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.