By JAKE WIENS
Following news that an early, outspoken critic of the now-infamous Project Gunrunner program at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been sent a notice of termination in an alleged act of retaliation, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian yesterday called for a race between Obama and lawmakers to "kick the ass of the idiot at ATF who tried this."
The news is only the latest in a string of apparent attempts by ATF to retaliate against agents cooperating with the oversight efforts of Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA).
Back in January, Senator Grassley reminded ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson that "ATF employees have the right to talk to Congress and to provide Congress with information free and clear of agency interference." Grassley's letter was spurred by allegations that an Assistant Special Agent in Charge had accused an agent of misconduct for cooperating with the Senate Judiciary Committee:
I understand that Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) George Gillette of the ATF’s Phoenix office questioned one of the individual agents who answered my staff’s questions about Project Gunrunner. ASAC Gillette allegedly accused the agent of misconduct related to his contacts with the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is exactly the wrong sort of reaction for the ATF. Rather than focusing on retaliating against whistleblowers, the ATF’s sole focus should be on finding and disclosing the truth as soon as possible.
More recently, Representative Issa wrote to ATF Deputy Director William J. Hoover to raise further concerns about retaliation involving ATF agents cooperating with Congress.
Issa noted June 15 testimony in which Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich assured the committee that "Department of Justice will not, would never, retaliate against whistleblowers."
Issa then went on to detail allegations that ATF agents cooperating with Congress had already been retaliated against:
During the course of the Committee's investigation, several ATF agents related that they have already experienced retaliation. Two agents stated they were removed from Group VII after reporting their misgivings about Operation Fast and Furious [part of the Project Gunrunner program] up the chain of command. One agent stated he and several other agents in Group VII who expressed unease with the operation received negative performance evaluations.
Having witnessed these incidents, you might expect that the witnesses who testified on June 15, and other ATF employees with information relevant to this investigation, fear reprisal. In fact, they do. One special agent testified that he was initially reluctant to speak to the Committee because he feared retaliation.
After citing numerous statements from ATF agents who said they feared cooperating with his Committee because of ATF's well-known history of retaliation, Issa called on the ATF to end its troublesome tradition of reprisal:
These statements reveal a worrying cycle: a history of retaliation by ATF management causes its employees to fear reprisals, which in turn prevents them from coming forward to the Committee. This needs to end.
The most recent allegation of retaliation involves an ATF agent, Vince Cefalu, who was not directly involved with the Project Gunrunner program and does not appear to be working with Congress. Nonetheless, he was one of the first agents to speak publicly about Project Gunrunner and its shortcomings. Cefalu has also been critical of ATF mismanagement more generally, even going as far as creating a website called CleanupATF.org (POGO has previously blogged on the role of the internet in enabling whistleblowers to instantly make allegations public).
In ATF's letter notifying Cefalu of his termination, they cited the unauthorized posting of documents he had posted to that website as the reason for his dismissal, according to news reports.
But regardless of the rationale behind ATF's decision to terminate Cefalu, his dismissal provides further evidence that speaking out publicly about ATF's shortcomings is a recipe for reprisal. To echo Representative Issa, this needs to end.
It appears that ATF will have plenty of time to change its ways and allow its agents to cooperate with congressional investigators free of reprisal. Newsweek and the Daily Beast reported yesterday that a deal was brokered between Senator Grassley and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that granted Grassley access to ATF documents and testimony in return for lifting a hold on Obama administration nominees. The deal indicates that this investigation is heating up.
Jake Wiens is a POGO Investigator.