The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is blocking the main whistleblower in the Fast and Furious case from publishing a book, claiming his retelling of the Mexico “gun-walking” scandal will hurt morale inside the embattled law enforcement agency, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times.
ATF’s dispute with Special Agent John Dodson is setting up a First Amendment showdown that is poised to bring together liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and conservatives in Congress who have championed Mr. Dodson’s protection as a whistleblower.
The ACLU is slated to become involved in the case Monday, informing ATF it is representing Mr. Dodson and filing a formal protest to the decision to reject his request to publish the already written book, sources told The Times, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.
The battle also could have repercussions on Capitol Hill, where the two lead investigators who helped uncover the Fast and Furious scandal, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, Calif. Republican, had written a foreword to the book, the sources said.
ATF officials declined Sunday night to discuss Mr. Dodson’s specific matter, citing personnel privacy. But the officials said it was possible for an agent to be rejected for publishing a book for pay but get permission to publish it for free. No manuscript for any Fast and Furious book has received approval for unpaid publication, however, the officials said.
A source famiiiar with Mr. Dodson’s book request told the Times that ATF officials never inquired whether he was seeking to publish the book for pay or free, and that the rejection came only after his superiors in Washington and Arizona asked to read the manuscript.
Mr. Dodson was the first ATF special agent to go public in 2011 with allegations that his supervisors had authorized the flow of semi-automatic weapons into Mexico instead of interdicting them, touching off a scandal that toppled most of the top leadership of ATF in Washington and Phoenix. The controversy also led to angry recriminations in Mexico, which dealt with a wave of violent crime linked to the weapons, and high-profile congressional hearings that embarrassed the Obama administration.
Mr. Dodson began penning a book late last year about his role as the central whistleblower in the case and in June sought formal permission for outside employment that would allow him to engage a publisher and publish the book. He gave a copy of the manuscript to Washington superiors in late May and to his immediate superiors in Arizona in July.
Documents show that one of Mr. Dodson’s supervisors in Arizona, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Carlos Canino, rejected his request July 19 and was backed in the decision by the agent in charge of the office, Thomas G. Atteberry, four days later.
Their rejection made no claims that the book would release sensitive or classified information or compromise ongoing law enforcement proceedings.
Rather, the supervisors offered a different reason for their decision. “This would have a negative impact on morale in the Phoenix [Field Division] and would have a detrimental effect on our relationships with DEA and FBI.”
The ATF general counsel’s office subsequently sanctioned the decision, all but killing the book project.
“An employee’s supervisory chain may disapprove any outside employment request for any reason, at any supervisory level,” ATF attorney Greg Serres wrote Mr. Dodson on Aug. 29, underlining the word “any” for emphasis. “The Office of Chief Counsel cannot approve outside employment requests in lieu of the supervisory chain’s disapproval.
“Therefore, your request to engage in outside employment is denied,” he said.
Separately, a top ATF official has been reviewing Mr. Dodson’s manuscript for any concerns about sensitive or classified information, potentially leaving open the possibility a process by which it could be published for free, a senior law enforcement official told The Times.
The gun-walking strategy — part of an undercover case called Fast and Furious — violated ATF’s long-standing policy to interdict weapons from straw buyers.
In all, ATF officials permitted more than 1,700 semi-automatic weapons to flow through the hands of straw buyers for the Mexican cartels, with many crossing the border.
Senior ATF officials hoped to trace the guns to crimes, then make a bigger case against the Mexican drug lords. The strategy, however, backfired when hundreds of the weapons began showing up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including at the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
The Justice Department initially denied guns knowingly had been allowed to flow across the border, then months later reversed course and admitted the tactic had been used for more than a year. The change in story led to allegations of a cover-up.
The revelations exploded into public in spring 2011, catapulting Mr. Dodson and other ATF field agents who had objected into dual investigations by Congress and the Justice Department inspector general.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. both claimed they knew nothing about the strategy until the controversy erupted, but the president has invoked executive privilege to block Congress from seeing certain documents, thus thwarting the completion of that probe. A court recently ruled in favor of Congress in the ongoing legal dispute.
Both the congressional and inspector general investigations concluded that the gun-walking tactics were poorly conceived and put lives in jeopardy. The fallout forced the ouster of numerous top officials, including the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, Dennis Burke, and the acting director of the ATF, Kenneth Melson.
The ATF, under new director B. Todd Jones, says it has imposed sweeping procedures to ensure gun-walking doesn’t occur in future cases.
The book dispute with Mr. Dodson, however, is not the first First Amendment controversy to erupt in the aftermath of the scandal.
Last year, Mr. Jones raised alarm in Congress and inside his own agency when he released a videotaped message that warned agencies that there would be “consequences” if agents blew the whistle on wrongdoing outside their chain of command.
The message led to claims that whistleblowing would be chilled, and ATF subsequently clarified Mr. Jones’ remarks to emphasize that the agency would not interfere with legitimate whistleblowing activities.