A major news feature written by Bloomberg/Businessweek Assistant Managing Editor Paul M. Barrett will likely make it difficult, if not impossible, for the administration to continue to defend Operation Fast and Furious as a one-time bad idea.
Barrett's story "The Guns That Got Away" tells the story of Operation Wide Receiver, a 2006 Tucson, Arizona based ATF operation.
Begun under the Bush administration, Operation Wide Receiver preceded Fast and Furious. Like Fast and Furious, sales to known arms traffickers were made under the guidance- and encouragement - of the ATF. It was equally unsuccessful, but no US agents have been killed with the 450 rifles and handguns that were sold to traffickers supplying guns to Mexican criminals.
For the past few months, I've written peripherally about Operation Wide Receiver, but haven't named a source, other than saying it was unimpeachable.
The man who tipped the ATF to the firearms smuggling, then personally made the sales to the suspected firearms traffickers, sometimes from his own home, may be a name many of you recognize.
Freelance writer and licensed firearms dealer Mike Detty worked to help federal officials shutdown a firearms trafficking operation in to Mexico. It didn't turn out as hoped. Jim Shepherd photo.
Mike Detty is a freelance gun writer and owner of Mad Dog Global Marketing in Tucson, Arizona. As a writer, Detty's work is known inside the gun business. As a licensed firearms dealer, Detty sells guns.
In February 2006, a young man approached Detty about buying some ARs. Detty had six in stock. The young man bought them; then asked when he could get more. Detty said he could get more in a couple of weeks. The young man said he'd take all of twenty of them.
Detty ran the requisite NICS background checks, hit no delays and made the first sale. But, Detty says in the Bloomberg/Businessweek story, "Something wasn't right."
"This kid is like 20 years old. Where's the money coming from? And where are the guns going?"
So he called the ATF. That was the beginning of Operation Wide Receiver.
As Paul Barrett's feature documents, it was an ATF operation that may have been solid in concept; but was anything but flawless in execution.
After signing Detty to a confidential informant contract - and promising more money for helping shutdown the smuggling operation and convict the smugglers -the ATF pushed Wide Receiver forward.
They lost track of hundreds of weapons.
Batteries failed in tracking devices. Smugglers knew ATF helicopter loiter times, so they drove aimlessly , letting ATF choppers follow them until they had to return to base for fuel. At that point, the smugglers made a mad dash for the border - without government surveillance.
I first heard Detty's story sitting around a hotel pool in Berryville, Arkansas. Candidly, I was more than skeptical. Detty produced facts to back his story: photos, email and other written communications with the ATF.
In them, Detty changed from a guy who thought he was doing the right thing to a man who felt he was being shafted by the people he'd hoped were in the process of shutting down a major smuggling operation.
Detty's frustration mounted after he realized that despite buyers having been recorded saying the guns were headed to Mexico, the buying continued.
Relations between Detty and the government soured. "They weren't doing anything," Detty told me, "and they weren't paying me the money I was owed."
Prosecutors, it seems, were reluctant to push forward in trials because it would mean admitting the ATF had lost track of hundreds of guns that eventually wound up in Mexico.
Detty also learned his identity had been revealed during the few trials of low-level traffickers. Living only sixty miles from the Mexican border, being known as a government informant could prove more than embarrassing.
As I spoke with Detty, my frustration grew. As a newsman, I wanted the story told. Owning a news service that covers the firearms industry, I knew that no matter how solid the work, it would be an uphill battle to get the story out.
Enter Bloomberg/Businessweek's Paul Barrett. I was reading a pre-release copy of his upcoming book "GLOCK: The Rise of America's Gun". Reading it, I recognized a solid reporter's work. Interviewing him for my review, I hinted there was "another gunwalker story" not getting mainstream coverage.
Barrett wasn't convinced, but being a newsman, he was interested.
"Jim, when you first told me about Detty and the ATF, I frankly couldn't believe the story was true," Barrett told me, "Then I went out to Tucson to check it out, and sadly, you had it exactly right."
So, too does Barrett. The resulting work is the first mainstream reporting to shine a bright light directly on Tucson and Operation Wide Receiver.
You can read it for yourself at http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/the-guns-that-got-away-11172011.html.
It's a solid piece of reporting that may force officials to recognize- and address- their bad choices. As the Fast and Furious hearings continue, this latest revelation will doubtless turn up the heat on Attorney General Eric Holder and his administration.
We'll keep you posted.
Editor's Note: Barrett's book GLOCK: The Rise of America's Gun has been selected to appear in the January catalots of both the Military and History Book Clubs.