Incompetence at Best

Congress recently opened a hearing on Operation Fast and Furious, the ATF investigation that allowed numerous firearms to go to suspected or confirmed Mexican drug cartel members. The scandal originally broke when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives blew the whistle to news media and politicians.

CBS News reports, “Documents obtained by Congressional investigators show weapons – sold under ATF’s watch in Operation Fast and Furious out of the Phoenix office – have been used by at least three Mexican drug cartels: Sinaloa, El Teo and La Familia.” (“Gunwalker scandal called ‘perfect storm of idiocy,’” July 26)

ATF agents watched as large quantities of weapons were brought out of a Phoenix gun store by a suspected supplier for a Mexican drug cartel. They allowed well over a thousand weapons to pass this way.

One would have to ask if this is just a noteworthy example of bureaucratic incompetence or something more sinister. I’d say it’s a toss-up between the two.

There are certainly suspicious circumstances and unanswered questions. The operation appears to have been approved high up in the Department of Justice, but ATF agents operating in Mexico — who are there for the purpose of coordinating policy between Mexican and US agencies — say they weren’t informed.

CNN reports that Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House committee investigating Fast and Furious, said the Department of Justice continues to withhold information and has “inappropriately interfered” with the committee’s work. “Issa said the Justice Department has blocked efforts to identify those inside the department who were aware of the program, and who endorsed it.” (ATF officials admit mistakes in Operation Fast and Furious gun program, July 26)

If federal agents tasked with overseeing firearms transfers watched suspicious sales go by, maybe there was something deeper at work. Officials focused on personal power might have been looking for a reason to justify their budget and mission to the public: “Look everyone, we need more money and power because Americans are selling guns used by drug cartels!” Perhaps we will find out that there is more to the case, and discover who knew what about what was happening.

Certainly, people have a right to buy guns, even multiple semiautomatic rifles and handguns. Their ability to do so helps distribute power among the people. It should be clear that government and its official and unofficial helpers cannot be trusted with a monopoly on public protection.

Fast and Furious could be just bureaucratic incompetence taken to the extreme. Some people file reports, others pass on reports, the lower ranks say what they expect will please the higher ranks, the higher ranks issue pronouncements that they expect their subordinates to carry out, and nobody bears ultimate responsibility. It’s made even worse when administrators answer to the demands of those with political pull and not to the choices of the public.

Of course incompetence and malevolence can overlap, and probably often do when it comes to the government alphabet agencies. If Fast and Furious is a conspiracy, it’s as poorly managed as would be expected from a government agency. CBS news presented arrogant emails from ATF officials to their subordinates, one of which said that if agents didn’t think this was “fun,” they could try to find lower-paying jobs serving food to prisoners.

America’s Drug War has been waged with incompetence and malevolence since its beginning. It’s not a War on Drugs, but a war to control drugs, to control what substances people put into their bodies. As the Fast and Furious scandal reminds us, it’s being waged with particular intensity in Mexico, putting Mexicans and Americans at greater risk of harm. One would have to question if the government drug war council even wants to be done with a tragedy that rakes in big money to law enforcement agencies and the companies that supply them.

By waging war, government policies create an atmosphere of war. When government violence against an industry means that success depends more on martial prowess and political connections than on giving customers the best deal, then there will be more incentives to behave violently. This is not the only factor influencing drug trade violence that government has a hand in. When political and economic elites combine to lock in the power and privileges enjoyed by some, those who work to support them are often disempowered, and violent gangs become either more attractive or more irresistible.

Solving drug-related violence is not a matter of harder crackdowns, secret missions, ethnic prejudice, or fancy enforcement tools. It is a matter of ending the Drug War, dismantling the prison and enforcement industries created in its name, establishing supportive communities, and above all respecting personal choices including the choice of what substances to consume.

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