In January 2011, scandal broke out over “Project Gunrunner,” a program of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agency (ATF). The intended goal of “Project Gunrunner” was to limit the flow of firearms into Mexico through close surveillance of undercover gun purchases. ATF agents encouraged gun shops to sell machinery to “straw buyers”—people who buy weapons in the US with the known intent of trafficking them into Mexico. The ATF was then supposed to trace these guns in order to gain intelligence, dangerously letting the weapons “walk” in hopes of making bigger arrests within the cartels themselves. Whistleblowers say that the tracing never happened. Ultimately, the ATF allowed more than 1,800 weapons to enter Mexico and fall into drug hands.
It was later discovered that ATF employee John Dodson blew the whistle on the problems with “Project Gunrunner.” At least 6 other ATF agents and executives have come forward exposing how the ATF encouraged the illegal sale of firearms to known criminals. In the wake of these mishaps, ATF has been accused of retaliating against fellow agent Vince Cefalu who came forward with information on ATF’s illegal operations in December 2010. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa sent a letter to the ATF that warned officials not to retaliate against whistleblowers. Yet two days later, Cefalu—an employee of ATF for 24 years—was served with termination papers. Agent Cefalu stated, “Simply put, we knowingly let hundreds of guns and dozens of identified bad guys go across the border.” However, Agent Cefalu’s dismissal is not the ATF’s first case of retaliation against whistleblowers. Earlier this year, another agent was accused of misconduct for talking with Senator Grassley’s (Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee) staffers after the scandal first broke.
ATF Agent Dodson was an anonymous whistleblower before he went public in February 2011 with knowledge that the ATF approved this illegal operation. He was motivated in part by the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was shot in December 2010. Investigations showed that Agent Terry was shot with an AK-47 that was purchased from a shop involved in “Project Gunrunner.” Senator Grassley began investigating after talking to Agent Dodson and several other ATF agents who all told the same story. However, the Senator has been met with steely stonewalling in response to his probe. Prior to the Congressional hearing on June 13th, Congressman Issa also called out the stonewalling by accusing the Justice Department of failing to cooperate and the ATF of not complying with his subpoena for necessary documents. However, it seems the ATF may not be the only agency at fault in this questionable practice. Congressman Issa’s spokesman has made a statement that “it’s quite certain that Kenneth Melson (acting director of ATF) was not the principal architect of this plan nor was he the only high-ranking official who knew about and authorized this operation.”
We will have to wait and see what happens, but we urge the ATF to stop retaliating against the whistleblowers who bought 'Project Gunrunner' to light.
*Cho Hwang (a NWC intern) contributed to this posting