Posted by on September 02, 2011 in Blog

Several months ago, news broke that the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [ATF], had been involved in a controversial program dubbed “Fast and Furious.” As part of the program, the United States, at the direction of the ATF, provided firearms to Mexican drug cartels. The theory was that the weapons would lead the ATF right to the doorstep of some of the most powerful, dangerous, and underhanded criminals responsible for drug trafficking and murder on both sides of the border.

While the program has admirable goals, its implementation was poorly planned out. Many of the weapons provided could not be tracked effectively once they were given away. The plot backfired and U.S. provided automatic weapons turned up at crimes scenes near the border. In sum, at least 122 firearms were lost and then later discovered to have been used in the commission of a crime. Meanwhile, Mexican authorities found AK- 47 assault rifles, powerful .50 caliber rifles, and other weapons in late 2009, all linked to the U.S. operation. 

When the story broke, the program became an embarrassment to the Obama administration, and to the ATF who had authorized it. In response, Congressman Darrell Issa announced an investigation by the powerful Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which is tasked with the job of providing Congressional oversight of the Executive branch, and empowered with the ability to issue subpoenas to compel both document production and testimony.

Fast forward several months to this week. Despite what has been described as a slow start, Chairman Issa’s committee landed a major victory. Having announced that the investigation would continue until a full picture of the operation was painted, Issa successfully raised public awareness of the program to the point where key leaders were forced to step aside. In particular, this Tuesday, the Department of Justice, to which the ATF belongs, announced that Director Kenneth Melson , who had led the agency since 2009, was being replaced and transferred to the Office of Legal Policy. The move was meant to head off future investigations by announcing a clean slate at the ATF. The news came in conjunction with a separate announcement that the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke would resign as well.

Score one for Team Issa!

The successful investigation by Chairman Issa was a model of how Congressional oversight can help protect American Citizens from the follies of their own government, and underscored the need for further investigations into similarly questionable terrain. For instance, last week news broke that the NYPD has teamed up with the CIA to engage in domestic spying operations against the Arab American and American Muslim communities in the greater NYC region.

As has been detailed in previous blog posts, according to the AP, “since the September 11th terrorist attacks, the NYPD has become one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government.” Under the supervision of a CIA officer, secret police squads were developed to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods based on racial and ethnic mapping techniques that likely violated the 4th amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, as well as the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. Undercover officers known as “rakers” are dispatched into minority neighborhoods as part the program. They monitor daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclub, as well as mosques, sometimes with the help of secret informers – all absent any evidence of wrongdoing.

News of the program rippled through the NYC community, drawing the ire of civil rights groups from around the country. So much so, that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was forced to defend the NYPD’s actions. Bloomberg went on record stating that “if there are threats or leads to follow, then the NYPD's job is to do it. The law is pretty clear about what's the requirement, and I think they follow the law” [emphasis mine].

End of story? Hardly.

While the future of the program is now unclear, what is clear is that at the very least, the program requires additional oversight and an investigation to determine what if any laws were broken and which rights were violated. Chairman Issa’s success with the ATF demonstrates that he is precisely the man for the job.  However, taking on the NYPD over domestic terrorism nonetheless is a dicey proposition. That said, it is precisely in situations like these that true leaders shine. We hope Chairman Issa sees it the same way.

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