I’m a bit of a gamer at heart. When I was a child, I loved to play those old-school text adventures from Infocom. Today there’s a smorgasbord of opportunities to play role-playing games with heavy story content. One of my favorites in recent years was 2010’s underrated Alpha Protocol, in which the main character was a spy for an ultra-secret government organization.
In the game universe, it was so secret that spies had to find ways to pay for their own weapons, travel, and equipment, that way pesky oversight could be avoided. They called it “the yellow brick road.” It was really a game mechanic to give the player a way to switch alignments between the various competing organizations in the game painlessly.
Unfortunately, a few agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives appear to have taken Alpha Protocol less as an underappreciated game that should have won an award for its use of “Turn Up The Radio” during a fight, and more as a how-to guide for a stroll on their own yellow brick road.
Matt Apuzzo reports in the New York Times that ATF agents, “not authorized by Justice Department rules,” were using a “web of shadowy cigarette sales to funnel tens of millions of dollars into a secret bank account.” This operation, relying on “phony shipments of snack food disguised as tobacco” gave the BAT-men “an off-the-books way to finance undercover investigations and pay informants without the usual cumbersome paperwork and close oversight, according to court records and people close to the operation.”
Who likes having to deal with all that paperwork? It just gets in the way, right? As does that pesky Bill of Rights.
Although gun owners tend to associate the ATF with the ‘firearms’ part of their name, the org’s mandate extends to tobacco, too. The operation apparently grew out of investigations of cigarette smuggling both internationally and between the several states and Indian Reservations, all of which have their own different tax schemes for the product. This op got going as part of an anti-smuggling effort. After all, how better to catch smugglers than to pose as one yourself?
Obviously, things got a little out of hand. This particular story broke because members of the Raleigh, North Carolina-based U.S. Tobacco Cooperative filed a lawsuit against the BAT-men, alleging that they’d been swindled out of $24 million.
At this point, details are sketchy. In his article, Mr. Apuzzo noted:
It is unclear how broadly the A.T.F. adopted this practice, at what level it was approved, and whether it continues. Nearly all references to the A.T.F. have been blacked out of public court records, and most documents are entirely sealed.
The ATF operation (centered on an organization called “Big South”) appears to have been well-financed. “Its assets included more than two dozen vehicles, including expensive S.U.V.s and a fleet of Mercedes, B.M.W., Audi, Lexus and Jaguar sports cars.”
People who’ve been paying attention to the ATF over the years cannot be terribly surprised by this. As RF reported last year, firearms supplied by the ATF to drug cartels as part of the disastrous Obama-era Fast and Furious program are tied to at least 69 killings and 20 mass murders in Mexico. That op was supposedly intended to stop smuggling, too.
At best, this tobacco smuggling scheme, viewed in context with Fast and Furious, suggests a Bureau with overzealous agents who are unwilling to be constrained by laws and oversight in their pursuit of lawbreakers. At worst, it implies that there there’s a not-insignificant number of agents who are willing to go rogue for their own personal gain.
Certainly, news of this isn’t going to make it any easier for gun owners — already suspicious of the ATF — to have confidence in the organization going forward.