Feds Paid a Teen to Get a Neck Tattoo of a Giant Squid Smoking a Joint

A new ATF scandal is worse than Fast and Furious—and a test of the Obama Administration's commitment to transparency and accountability.
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The most undercovered story in America this month: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's sprawling investigation into U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

Lately infamous for the "Fast and Furious" gun-walking scandal, the ATF now has the dubious distinction of bankrolling even-more-questionable behavior, which my colleague Andrew Cohen details here. The newspaper leads its latest investigative article with a headline-friendly anecdote about Aaron Key, a mentally disabled 19-year-old who started hanging out with the guys who ran a smoke shop near his house, taking them for friends. As it turns out, they were undercover ATF agents. And they paid the troubled teen and a friend $150 apiece to tattoo the fake shop's emblem on their necks. 

But digging into the story, it's evident that undercover employees were engaged in far more objectionable behavior.

In cities around the United States, the ATF set up fake stores—often but not always pawn shops—set up surveillance cameras, conducted lots of illegal business over many months, and arrested various customers at the end of the sting. Normally federal law-enforcement agencies don't set up operations guaranteed to mostly snare low-level individual criminals operating at the local level. 

Questionable resource allocation aside, the really shocking parts of this scandal involve what happened at the neighborhood level as several of these stores were being operated. Just take a look at the newspaper's bullet-point summary:

■ ATF agents befriended mentally disabled people to drum up business and later arrested them in at least four cities in addition to Milwaukee. In Wichita, Kan., ATF agents referred to a man with a low IQ as "slow-headed" before deciding to secretly use him as a key cog in their sting. And agents in Albuquerque, N.M., gave a brain-damaged drug addict with little knowledge of weapons a "tutorial" on machine guns, hoping he could find them one.

■ Agents in several cities opened undercover gun- and drug-buying operations in safe zones near churches and schools, allowed juveniles to come in and play video games and teens to smoke marijuana, and provided alcohol to underage youths. In Portland, attorneys for three teens who were charged said a female agent dressed provocatively, flirted with the boys and encouraged them to bring drugs and weapons to the store to sell.

■ As they did in Milwaukee, agents in other cities offered sky-high prices for guns, leading suspects to buy firearms at stores and turn around and sell them to undercover agents for a quick profit. In other stings, agents ran fake pawnshops and readily bought stolen items, such as electronics and bikes—no questions asked—spurring burglaries and theft. In Atlanta, agents bought guns that had been stolen just hours earlier, several ripped off from police cars.

■ Agents damaged buildings they rented for their operations, tearing out walls and rewiring electricity—then stuck landlords with the repair bills. A property owner in Portland said agents removed a parking lot spotlight,damaging her new $30,000 roof and causing leaks, before they shut down the operation and disappeared without a way for her to contact them.

■ Agents pressed suspects for specific firearms that could fetch tougher penalties in court. They allowed felons to walk out of the stores armed with guns. In Wichita, agents suggested a felon take a shotgun, saw it off and bring it back—and provided instructions on how to do it. The sawed-off gun allowed them to charge the man with a more serious crime.

Most people in a high-crime neighborhoods would be eager to have law enforcement focus on arresting bad guys. But imagine you lived in a neighborhood that ATF was thinking of entering. Would you want them there, regardless of the crime problem, if you knew their methods would include selling guns to felons who wouldn't be pursued for months, exploiting mentally disabled locals, and providing a place where underaged teens could drink alcohol and smoke marijuana?

The problems hardly end there. In Milwaukee, "a machine gun and other weapons had been stolen from an agent's car, the storefront was burglarized, agents arrested the wrong people and hired the brain-damaged man, who had an IQ of 54, to set up gun and drug deals. The machine gun has not been recovered."

The newspaper managed to document jaw-dropping misbehavior by spending countless hours going through court papers and conducting interviews to determine where the ATF operated these fake stores. They focused on six of them. As yet, no one knows how many sting operations are out there. ATF won't give a number. In fact, the bureau won't even release its internal investigation into problems at a location that has long since been shut down:

The ATF has refused to release its internal investigation into the failures of its flawed Fearless Distributing sting in Milwaukee. The report has been sought by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and members of Congress since its completion earlier this year.

The internal review was launched after a Journal Sentinel investigation revealed numerous foul-ups in the operation. For nine months, the ATF also has refused to provide any documents to the Journal Sentinel, which has filed a dozen requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act, including the cost of the operations and rules on agents keeping guns in their vehicles.

Once again, Barack Obama's pledge to preside over the most transparent administration in history is shown to be nothing but talk, and in this case no argument can be made that national-security demands that the truth stay hidden. What happens next is a test case. Will higher-ups in the executive branch demand that the public receive full information about the ATF's transgressions? Or was all the talk about the importance of sunlight just posturing? If this isn't the time for transparency, I can't think of any situation that would be. One also wonders if anyone be fired for their role in these documented, indefensible events, or if accountability in this government is as dead as it seems. 

Stay tuned.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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