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ATF grilled by lawmakers over another gun operation snafu

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On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations held a hearing to examine the already discredited U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) use of storefront operations.

The hearing focused on yet another ATF operation -- “Operation Fearless” -- that turned into a fiasco. The subcommittee members examined Milwaukee's operation and other ATF undercover cases to see if storefront operations by that bureau possessed systemic problems, according to the House Judiciary Committee's chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

The main witness at the hearing was the Deputy Director of the ATF, Thomas Brandom.

According to the facts as they are known, the ATF's Violent Crime Impact Team (VCIT) opened an undercover storefront they dubbed "Fearless Distributing" in a neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisc., in January 2012.

The ATF agents also created an attractive Facebook page, according to the committee. The undercover ATF agents then began selling everything from clothing to drug paraphernalia such as marijuana and hashish pipes.

In an effort to nab criminals and street gang members, the ATF agents who staffed the phony Milwaukee store put the word out on the streets that they were interested in purchasing firearms and illegal drugs.

While perhaps well intentioned, the undercover operation became a series of snafus such as the theft of firearms from a government vehicle parked on the street outside of the store, as well as an actual burglary of the ATF storefront.

There was also the questionable involvement of an allegedly mentally-challenged man in conducting firearms transactions and what one subcommittee member said was the "utter lack of management."

"When I see allegations of police or military misconduct -- well intentioned or not -- I can always point to a lack of training and a lack of supervision. This operation, as much as Operation Fast & Furous, must be thoroughly investigated. Maybe there needs to be a special prosecutor appointed to probe these ATF operations," said former police lieutenant and training advisor George Bruno.

According to the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., there were similar problems with ATF undercover operations in other U.S. cities that need to be investigated by his committee.

“We’ve come to learn, thanks in large part to diligent reporting by the Journal Sentinel, that the botched storefront operation in Milwaukee was not an isolated incident. The ATF lacked proper oversight, acted recklessly and took advantage of the mentally handicapped," said Sensenbrenner in a press statement.

"Coming on the heels of Operation Fast and Furious, Congress continues to have serious concerns about the agency’s leadership. I expect Deputy Director Brandon to be forthright regarding the agency’s activities. I will continue to vigorously oversee the ATF until I am confident that the public knows the whole truth and that the agency’s mismanagement has been corrected," said the lawmaker from Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Rep. Goodlatte said, “Over a year has passed since the botched ATF undercover operation in Milwaukee and many questions still remain about this and similar stings across the country. Why does ATF continue to use large amounts of taxpayer dollars in buyback programs when the Inspector General has found these programs lack oversight and are not effective in reducing crime?"

"In fact, these storefront operations have often increased crime in the very neighborhoods they were supposed to help," he added.

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