The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ undercover sting operations were poorly supervised and run by agents with little experience, resulting in problems including the setup of a fake storefront that attracted gun-touting felons near a youth facility and a failure to develop broader intelligence on a gun-trafficking group, according to a new Justice Department report.
The Justice Department’s inspector general reviewed five undercover storefront operations that ATF operated between 2010 and 2013 — in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Pensacola, Florida; St. Louis; Wichita, Kansas; and Boston — and recommended increased oversight of such operations.
“Our review determined that while undercover operations can be an important component of ATF’s efforts to fight violent crime, ATF failed to devote sufficient attention to how it was managing its undercover storefront operations,” states the report, released Thursday. “It lacked adequate policies and guidance for its agents, and in some cases supervision, necessary to appropriately address the risks associated with the use of this complex investigative technique.”
The 112-page report does not recommend doing away with the use of storefronts as an investigative tool, but it notes that in order to run safe and successful operations, the ATF needs to better support its agents. It makes 13 recommendations for improving oversight and operations, which the ATF has agreed to make.
The review of the storefront operations was initiated after an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposed problems with a sting there that included the theft of several guns and the arrest of a brain-damaged man with a low IQ who agents ensnared to unwittingly promote their fake business.
Investigators specifically sought to review interactions between ATF agents involved in the storefront operations and individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities as a result of the news report.
Ultimately, investigators found no evidence that any individuals were targeted or used for operations because of their disabilities, and the report concluded that there was no evidence agents involved “knew or even suspected that the identified individuals were intellectually or developmentally disabled.”
However, investigators found that ATF agents involved were not aware of legal obligations that apply to interactions with such persons.
The inspector general now is requiring the Justice Department to provide quarterly reports detailing the work in the area. Since the review began, the ATF has announced mandatory “Intellectual and Developmental Disability Awareness Training” for all law enforcement personnel.
The ATF established 53 storefront operations throughout the country between 2004 and 2013, according to the report.
Among other problems highlighted in the report:
• An undercover storefront in St. Louis was unknowingly set up within 600 feet of a Boys and Girls Club.
• The team assembled to run a storefront in Wichita had never before run a storefront operation and was given no guidance from ATF headquarters on how to do so.
• None of the storefronts reviewed gathered actionable intelligence on gun-trafficking organizations.
“Our review found that the extent of ATF’s intelligence gathering at the storefronts was, with few exceptions, limited to the collection of basic information about subjects who entered the storefronts and the firearms that they sold to the undercover agents,” the report states.
In a letter responding to the report, ATF Deputy Director Thomas Brandon notes that, in the five operations reviewed by the inspector general, 780 firearms were recovered and 120 people were recommended to be criminally charged.
“We believe that ATF’s past storefront operations have directly benefited public safety and, with the enhancements recommended by the OIG, storefronts should remain an investigative option,” he said.