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Atty. Gen. Holder’s Disappointing Appearance Before House Judiciary Committee on ATF Controversy

Atty. Gen. Holder before House Judiciary/ticklethewire.com

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

WASHINGTON — Whether you agree with Atty. General Eric Holder Jr. or not, most reasonable people would conclude that he’s a pretty decent guy and a straight shooter.

That being said, it makes his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday all the more disappointing.

I’m referring to his exchange with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), who started grilling Holder about the controversial and embarrassing ATF program known as Operation Fast and Furious, which encouraged gun dealers to sell to straw purchasers — all with the hopes of tracing the guns to the upper ranks of the Mexican cartels. Problem is, ATF lost track of some guns, which may have been used to kill Americans including a border patrol agent.

Issa questioned Holder and tried to figure out who in the Justice Department gave the green light for the program. Holder responded rather tentatively.

Was it deputy Attorney Gen. James Cole, Issa asked. Not likely, Holder said, because “I think” he wasn’t in the department at the time it started. Was it Lanny Breuer, chief of the Justice Department criminal division?

“I’m not sure whether Mr. Breuer authorized it,” Holder responded.

REALLY.

At this stage it’s hard to believe Holder doesn’t know — at least whether the chief of his criminal division authorized it. And perhaps it’s just as bad if he never wandered down the hall to ask.

It’s not too hard to find out.

It was not a pretty performance on Tuesday, not a very credible one.

Holder is better than that.

The Oklahoma Bombing 16 Years Later: We’re No Longer Surprised

After the bombing/fbi photo

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

Sixteen years ago today, America was served up one horrific surprise: The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City: 168 people died.

It was shocker.

At the time — April 19, 1995 –  as a reporter at the Detroit News, I called around to federal law enforcement people, checking to see what they knew. Some speculated that it was foreign terrorists, just like in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Others suggested it had something to do with Waco. The foreign terrorist theory sounded more palatable. The idea of our own citizens committing such an atrocity seemed unlikely.

I was wrong.

Two days later, I was headed up to Decker, Mi., about two hours outside of Detroit, to check out a farm  the FBI and ATF  agents were raiding.  The farm belonged to James Nichols. His brother Terry and Tim McVeigh had spent time there. Terry Nichols and Tim McVeigh were later convicted. McVeigh was put to death.

Now, 16 years later, we’ve evolved. The  thought of one our own committing a terrorist act simply doesn’t phase us.  A lone wolf. A naturalized citizen. A convert.  An anti-government fanatic. Nothing surprises us any more.

Sixteen years isn’t a particularly noteworthy milestone. But around this time of year, I always feel like its worth noting and offering condolences to the many families who lost loved ones in Oklahoma City.

ATF Still Hasn’t Turned Over Info to Congressional Committee; Battle Heats Up

ATF's Kenneth Melson keeping mum/fbi photo

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

WASHINGTON — The battle between Capitol Hill and ATF seems to be heating up.

ATF failed to meet the Wednesday deadline to turn over requested information about a controversial gun-walking operation to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for the committee, told ticklethewire.com Friday morning that the committee is expected to respond to  ATF’s non-compliance later in the day.

The committee has asked for info on the controversial program “Fast and Furious”, which had straw purchasers buying guns and ATF trying to trace them to the Mexican cartels. Some guns have ended up being used in serious crimes.

Rep. Darrell Isa, chairman of the committee, and Sen. Chuck Grassley have expressed anger over ATF’s failure to turn over information about the program.  On top of that, Ken Melson, head of ATF, turned down an invitation to appear before Congress.

On Thursday, former ATF official Bernie La Forest released an email to ticklethewire.com he had sent to former colleagues saying Congress may cut ATF’s budget — or worse yet — eliminate the agency if it doesn’t start cooperating.

“This refusal is exactly what some politicians want. If the ‘failure to cooperate’ continues, ATF is in for another blood bath . . . maybe a fatal one this go-around,” La Forest wrote.

ATF did not immediately respond for comment Friday morning.

“We aren’t going to discuss matters of ongoing investigations,” said ATF spokesman Drew Wade.

ATF Needs to Clean the Manure Off Its Boots

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

WASHINGTON — ATF has stepped into a big pile of manure and it hasn’t been doing a very good job of trying to clean off its boots.

I’m referring to the dust up over Operation Fast and Furious , a program out of Arizona in which ATF let “straw purchasers” buy guns and transport them to Mexico, all with the hopes of tracing them to the Mexican cartels.

The problem is that ATF couldn’t possibly keep tabs on all those guns. Some reportedly were used in serious crimes. When word of the program got out, folks like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia) demanded answers.

ATF has been slow to produce answers for Congress.  Grassley is now accusing ATF of stonewalling.

The press has had a field day. One story after another has appeared in papers and on television stations around the country.  None of them good. ATF looks like the stuff it has stepped in.

“The feeling is that somebody was sleeping at the switch, although they had good intentions,” one ATF official told me. “It was not a well thought out plan. I think there’s a lot of finger pointing right now.”

Agents say clearly letting so many guns walk was a big mistake. The goal was too ambitious, the risk too great. Maybe the agency was responding to criticism that it needed to go after bigger fish. That’s still not an excuse.

atf file photo

Regardless, agents say they’ve been left in the dark. The ATF honchos at headquarters aren’t telling them anything. They’ve had to rely on  information from the media. Many have been demoralized by the mess.

Plus, it’s caused a strain between Washington and the Mexican officials, who feel that the Americans don’t respect them. Let’s face it: It’s highly unlikely ATF would let that many guns walk if the guns wound up in the hands of American criminals instead of the Mexican cartels.

It was a bad plan. And the Justice Department needs to shoulder some blame since someone fairly high up knew about it and gave the blessing.

Attorney Gen. Eric Holder Jr. says he never gave the OK.

“Questions have been raised by ATF agents about the way in which some of these operations have been conducted. I think those questions have to be taken seriously, and on that basis I have asked the Inspector General to look at it,” Holder recently said.

Some are taking a wait and see attitude. They say the facts haven’t all come out. And cracking down on straw buyers isn’t always so easy because their true intent — buying guns on behalf of other people –  can be disguised and made to look legit.

That being said, ATF and the Justice Department need to come clean — as soon as possible.  Whenever I speak before law enforcement groups, be it a police precinct or at a university — I tell them: “Get as much of the story out as possible and be truthful. If you hide things or lie, the press will turn one story into five.”

Best to clean up the mess before the manure becomes a permanent fixture on those boots.

(Just in: CBS reports that Kenneth Melson, head of ATF,  has decided not to testify before a Senate hearing on Thursday where he would likely be asked about the gun program. Not good. He’s the boss. He needs to get out there in public.)

FBI Agent Gets 2 Years for Threatening Head of Dallas FBI

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

It’s off to prison for ex-FBI agent Carlos Ortiz Jr. who threatened to harm his estranged wife — an FBI analyst — and the head of the Dallas FBI.

Chief U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater in Dallas on Friday sentenced Carlos, 49, to two years in prison after he pleaded guilty in December to a charge of retaliating against a federal official, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. He had been locked up since his arrest in August.

Robert Casey Jr. , head of the Dallas FBI, suspended Ortiz without pay in May after Ortiz’s wife accused him of domestic violence. They have a elementary school aged son.

Authorities alleged that in August Ortiz spoke to a friend by phone, who is a licensed firearms dealer, and said he was looking for a .50 caliber rifle, which are used by military snipers.

He also made threats against Casey and his wife and accused them of having an affair, something FBI officials denied. A friend notified the FBI. Casey fired Ortiz on Aug. 25.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, during a phone conversation with a friend, Ortiz said of the Casey, head of the Dallas FBI: “I’m definitely gonna [expletive] on his grave, I might just put a .308 down his [expletive] (unintelligible).”

During the call, Ortiz expressed anger at losing his job with the FBI, saying “and what do I have for 26 years, one more year away from retirement? [expletive]. And an OPR.”

In August, on the day of his arrest, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said agents executed a federal search warrant at Ortiz’s home and car and found a “signed sworn statement” by Ortiz that said about his boss:

“Mr. Casey has broken me as a man and human being, with his constant threats and follow through terminating me leaving with no way to sustain my son. Mr. Casey never listed (sic) to me and has left me no options.”

“Finally that if Mr. Casey was not allowed to have so much power unchecked this would have never happened.”

Authorities said the statement was in an envelope with the notation: “DAD TAKE TO THE PRESS.”

Is Chicago Fed Judge Going too Far to Protect Jurors?

Ex-Gov on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

Imagine taxpayers spending millions of dollars collectively trying an Illinois governor, and in the end, the case all but collapses. The jurors only convict on one of 24 counts . They end up deadlocked on the rest.

Imagine that. Yes,it’s not too hard, considering it happened in the first trial of ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Isn’t it fair to assume people want to know why the case collapsed? Can we go as far as to say they have a right to know? I’d say Yes.

So I speak with some mixed feelings when I read that the U.S. District Judge James Zagel in Chicago on Tuesday ruled that he won’t release the names of the jurors until 9 a.m., the day after the verdict in the retrial of Blagojevich, which begins April 20.

The judge wants to  protect the jurors. Fair.

Zagel raises some good points: He says the press after the first trial hounded the jurors to find out what they were thinking. They knocked on doors. A TV helicopter reportedly flew up above a home where one jury was staying, the Associated Press reported. The judge has said the press was  obnoxious, that reporters went too far.

I’m for some balance. Jurors have rights.  But so does the public — the right to know. At minimum, the judge — and in other high profile cases as well — should strongly suggest — and not just throw it out as an option — that at least one of the jurors should brief the press after the verdict. Judges have a way of being persuasive, particularly after they bond with jurors during a trial. They can make it happen. And maybe that way, reporters wouldn’t have to knock on doors.

We have a right to know: What the prosecution, what the defense  did right, what they did wrong. Was it taxpayers’ money well spent? Did justice — regardless of the verdict — prevail?

There should be dignity in these proceedings. No question. But citizens — the lion’s share who don’t have time to attend these trials  — have the right to know what’s going on in the courts.

And while I’m at it, frankly, it’s time to bring television cameras into federal court to let citizens — some who have never stepped foot in a federal court — see what’s going on.  Worse yet, some federal courts, like in  Alexandria, Va., do everything to make it difficult for the press to do its job. The court there doesn’t allow reporters to carry cell phones (this is the 21st Century) and laptops (granted they shouldn’t be used in the courtrooms).

I have to commend federal courthouses like the one in Washington, which try to accommodate the press. Reporters can carry cell phones and bring a laptop into the courthouse.  And during some trials, like the one in D.C. involving Sen. Ted Stevens, the court set up an overflow room with TV monitors where reporters used laptops to report to the public what was going on. Other courthouses should follow suit.

Federal court is a dignified place.  But let’s strike a balance. Let’s not lose sight of the fact the people have a right to know what’s going on!

Public Hearing on Anthrax May Be Inevitible

Anthrax Suspect Bruce Ivins

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

WASHINGTON – Though the FBI and Justice Department are thoroughly convinced that scientist Bruce Ivins mailed the deadly anthrax letters in 2001, it seems almost inevitable now that some very costly and protracted public hearing will be conducted to review the whole case.  Unfortunately, Ivins killed himself in July 2008 before any charges could be filed against him.

The case once again came alive on Tuesday when the National Research Council released a 170-page report commissioned by the FBI that showed that the Justice Department and FBI  overstated their case when they definitively concluded that the anthrax used in the deadly mailings came from a flask from Ivins’  government laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland labeled RMR-1029. The report said it could not rule out other possible sources.

“The scientific link between the letter material and flask number RMR-1029 is not as conclusive as stated in the DOJ Investigative Summary,” the report said.

However, Lehigh University President Alice P. Gast, who led the 16-member National Research Council Committee that reviewed the cutting-edge science used in the investigation, said: “We find the scientific evidence to be consistent with their conclusions but not as definitive as stated.”

Unfortunately,  the study only examined  the sciences in the investigation and didn’t taken into account other key aspects — interviews, the behavior of Ivins, fingerprints, etc. And it avoided at all costs the thing everyone really wanted it to do: Say whether Ivins was the guy.

I spoke to folks on Tuesday at the FBI and Justice Department who insist, in totality, the evidence against Ivins is overwhelming, that the science was only a component of the investigation.

But I also spoke to Ivins attorney Paul Kemp who insisted the study showed the government’s smoking gun — the flask –  was merely smoke and mirrors. He wants a public review, possibly a Congressional hearing.

Sen. Chuck Grassley  (R-Ia.) chimed in on Tuesday and insisted it was time for a public review as did Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J).

It may not be what the FBI and Justice Department want. But they may have no say in the matter. The cries of the skeptics may be too much too ignore. And maybe a hearing would satisfy the skeptics — and maybe not.

White House Needs to Stop Being Wimpy About Gun Rules Tied to Mexico


By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com

WASHINGTON – What’s it going to take for the White House to figure out that the situation in Mexico — endless bloodshed over money, drugs and power — is an “emergency”?

The ambush of two ICE agents on Tuesday in which one died?  The deadly ambush last March of a woman from the American Consulate and her husband?  The endless murders of tens of thousands of Mexicans including plenty cops?

It’s simply disturbing how Wimpy the White House has been — how it has bowed to NRA.

I’m referring to a very simple rule it refuses to implement. ATF last December announced that it hoped the White House would quickly implement an emergency request  calling for gun dealers in four border states  to report sales of two or more assault weapons to one person within five days.  The idea is to keep better track of the guns and gun traffickers who are helping supply the murderous drug war in Mexico.

The NRA opposes the regulation. So what. The White House needs a backbone. This is an emergency.

Former colleague James Grimaldi of the Washington Post reported on Feb. 5 that the White House had rejected the emergency request, which will delay implementing the regulation for at least two months. The White House claims it wants to be more transparent and get more public feedback.  Michael Isikoff of NBC reported that the White House just didn’t see it as “emergency” under federal rules.

No one expects this to be the magic bullet, so to speak, that will turn things around.  You need lots and lots of things to collectively create a magic bullet.  But this  could help. And it certainly couldn’t hurt.

I spoke to James Cavanaugh, a thoughtful and  respected former ATF official the other day who simply said of the White House: “It’s not a profile in political courage.  Everybody is beating their chest saying how much they want to stop  the slaughter of Mexican citizens down there. ”

“You either need to change the law that describes what an emergency is or change the leader who made the decision that it isn’t.”