DOJ Watchdog Knocks ATF’s Anti-Gun Trafficking Program

November 9, 2010 7:04 a.m.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is not sharing information with other federal agencies, is not properly communicating with Mexican officials and is focusing too much of their effort on low-level gun traffickers while ignoring the bigger cases, according to a report by the Justice Department Inspector General released Tuesday.

DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine’s report focuses on ATF’s implementation of “Project Gunrunner,” which became a national initiative in 2006 to combat illegal gun trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. Fine found “significant weaknesses in ATF’s implementation of Project Gunrunner undermine its effectiveness.”

The agency “does not systematically and consistently exchange intelligence with its Mexican and some U.S. partner agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection,” the report found.ATF focuses largely on inspections of gun dealers and investigations of straw purchasers instead of on “higher-level traffickers, smugglers, and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns,” the report found. In fact, 68% of Project Gunrunner cases are single-defendant cases, according to the report, which also found that “some ATF managers discourage field personnel from conducting the types of complex conspiracy investigations that target higher-level members of trafficking rings.”

“ATF has a critical role in combating firearms trafficking into Mexico, and our report found weaknesses in ATF’s Gunrunner project,” Fine said in a statement. “While ATF has recently developed a new strategy for Project Gunrunner, it is essential that ATF develop an implementation plan — with defined goals, specific actions, and resources — to ensure the success of the new strategy and the success of ATF’s overall efforts to combat firearms trafficking to Mexico.”

A draft of the report was leaked to NBC News back in September.

Fine’s review found that because of a lack of resources, ATF has not been able to fully meet the needs fo the Mexican government in the areas of training and support. It also found that the “process of exchanging law enforcement investigative information between ATF and the government of Mexico is cumbersome.” At the time investigators were working in the field in June 2010, ATF “had a substantial backlog in responding to requests for information from Mexican authorities, which hindered coordination between ATF and Mexican law enforcement. ”

The report also concludes that weak U.S. gun laws are weakening the ATF project:

Because there is no federal firearms trafficking statute, ATF must use a wide variety of other statutes to combat firearms trafficking. However, cases brought under these statutes are difficult to prove and do not carry stringent penalties – particularly for straw purchasers of guns. As a result, we found that [U.S. Attorneys offices] are less likely to accept and prosecute Project Gunrunner cases. And when these cases are prosecuted and convictions obtained, Federal Sentencing Guidelines categorize straw-purchasing­ related offenses as lesser crimes.

ATF spokesman Drew Wade did not immediately respond to a message left by TPMmuckraker seeking comment. But in a response included in the report, ATF Deputy Director Kenneth E. Melson wrote that the report “fails to provide the full funding context of the implementation of Project Gunrunner.”

“The DIG review tends to lose sight of the complete purpose of Project Gunrunner,” Melson wrote. “Our work in Mexico has not been without challenges, including effective sharing of information. Accordingly, these very dynamic circumstances create information sharing challenges that ATF and the Government of Mexico are diligently collaborating to overcome.”

A recent three-part series in the Washington Post detailed how the gun lobby has helped limit ATF resources and reach. President Barack Obama has come under criticism from gun control advocates because of what they say is a lack of progress during his administration.

Inspector General Report on ATF’s Project Gunrunner

Correction: This post originally gave the wrong name for the ATF official who wrote a response to the report. We regret the error.

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