On second thought, maybe Fast & Furious isn't the most egregious ATF operation of the last 10 years

Twitter went crazy last night after an NYT editor teased a story they were working on for the a.m. as “very unusual” and “groundbreaking.” The result didn’t live up to the hype — it’s good, but not the world-rocking expose you’d expect when the Times braintrust is buzzing. This, on the other hand, is world-rocking. Not because it’s surprising to find the ATF engaged in dubious tactics, but because the tactics they used were so dubious even though the stakes were so, so small. If you strain very hard, you can semi-defend Fast & Furious as an idiotic response borne of desperation in trying to solve a serious problem. What’s the defense, though, when desperate and idiotic methods are used to catch penny-ante criminals, some of them profoundly mentally disabled?

I don’t often tell you to read the whole thing, especially when it’s as long as this, but I’m telling you now. The ATF’s M.O. was to open some sort of store, be it a pawn shop or a tattoo parlor, in a poor neighborhood and then try to bait the locals into committing drug or gun crimes. If some of those locals were handicapped, hey — that just makes reaching the monthly quota of guilty pleas and convictions easier. There’s no way to do it justice via excerpt, but here’s a taste of one instance where they recruited a guy with an IQ in the mid-50s to buy guns for them in the community:

Agents could see Bruner was intellectually disabled. On a video of one of their first meetings in November 2010, agents referred to him as “slow-headed,” according to Griffith, Bruner’s attorney.

“It was essential to have someone like Tony or your low-IQ guy in Milwaukee for this operation,” Griffith said. “These 30-something bearded and tattooed white guys aren’t going to knock on doors in the hood and say ‘Do you have guns?’ They had to get someone to do it for them.”

Agent Jason Fuller hired Bruner to hand out cards in the neighborhood; do odd jobs, such as clean up the parking lot; and watch out for police. The agents paid him in cigarettes, clothing from the store and cash — $20 to $50 in commission to find them electronics and other goods. And they took him to McDonald’s when he was hungry.

Eventually they asked him to find guns.

Bruner said he didn’t have any but he would try to find some. He ended up brokering dozens of gun sales.

And then, they arrested him on more than 100 counts of being a felon in possession of a weapon.

They did something similar to another man with a low IQ, who placed an ad in the paper to sell some of his guns. The ATF responded and sent a convicted felon, who identified himself as such, to make the purchase. That’s illegal, of course, and enough for an arrest. But then they did it again and again to the same guy, paying high prices for the guns each time, to the point where the gun-seller was buying guns from gun shops and then re-selling them to the ATF’s felon/purchaser on the same day to make a quick buck. That phenomenon, of the ATF’s targets implicitly being encouraged to commit crimes, is characteristic of the whole operation. Allegedly they accepted stolen goods at their fake pawn shops, which of course created an incentive for burglary in the neighborhoods. In another case, they were so desperate for a bust and so worried about being found out that they encouraged a pair of teens who hung around their fake smoke shop to get tattoos of the shop’s logo on their necks — and just to sweeten the deal, they paid for the kids’ tattoos with your tax money. The agency claimed it had to do something to allay the teens’ suspicions that they were cops. It paid off for them in the end: Ultimately, one of the teens was busted for trading an ounce of marijuana for clothes at the store. He was also charged with selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school because, you see, the feds’ shop was located right across the street from one.

That’s not all, but I’ll leave you to read about the ATF teaching people how to make sawed-off shotguns and fire machine guns. At least one machine gun went missing during these operations; in other cases, convicted felons were allowed to leave the store with guns they had just bought. But then, losing track of dangerous armed men is par for the course in ATF stings these days. Two exit questions for you. One: How soon before Darrell Issa holds hearings? And two, for legal eagles: How is there no entrapment in any of this? They might not have explicitly suggested the crime in each case but they clearly created incentives for committing the crime. The point of an entrapment defense, I thought, is to discourage overzealous cops from encouraging otherwise law-abiding people into wrongdoing. “Encouraging” can mean a lot of things, especially with a defendant who’s disabled.