ATF’s 5,000 employees enforce federal criminal laws and regulate the firearms and explosives industries. ATF investigates violent crimes involving firearms and explosives, acts of arson, and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. ATF also provides training and support to its federal, state, local, and international law enforcement partners and works in 25 field divisions with representation throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam. Foreign offices are located in Mexico, Canada, Colombia, and Iraq, as well as an advisor based in San Salvador serving El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Belize, Honduras, and Costa Rica.
The OIG examined ATF’s implementation of Project Gunrunner, an initiative to combat firearms trafficking into Mexico that ATF began as a pilot project in Texas in 2005 and expanded into a national initiative in 2006. Firearms trafficking along the Southwest border has intensified as drug traffickers operating in Mexico have turned to the United States as a primary source of weapons and routinely smuggle guns from the United States into Mexico.
This OIG review compared data from before and after Project Gunrunner’s implementation and found that ATF had increased the investigation and referral of defendants for federal prosecution for firearms trafficking-related offenses. Despite the increased ATF activity associated with Project Gunrunner, we found that significant weaknesses in ATF’s implementation of Project Gunrunner undermine its effectiveness. For example, our review found that ATF does not systematically and consistently exchange intelligence with its Mexican and some U.S. partner agencies, including the DEA, ICE, and Customs and Border Protection. Intelligence personnel in ATF’s Southwest border field divisions also do not routinely share firearms trafficking intelligence with each other. Further, ATF could better implement its Border Liaison Program to improve information sharing and coordination between its personnel in the United States and Mexico.
We also found that ATF focuses largely on inspections of gun dealers and investigations of individuals who buy guns on behalf of others who cannot buy them legally (straw purchasers), rather than on higher-level traffickers, smugglers, and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns. For example, 68 percent of Project Gunrunner cases are single-defendant cases, and some ATF managers discourage field personnel from conducting the types of complex conspiracy investigations that target higher-level members of trafficking rings. ATF also has not effectively used the Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) program to conduct more complex conspiracy investigations.
According to ATF’s June 2007 Gunrunner strategy, tracing guns seized in Mexico is the “cornerstone” of Project Gunrunner. However, we found that despite ATF’s efforts it had been unable to expand gun tracing throughout Mexico, and the majority of recovered guns in Mexico were not traced. Further, although trace requests to ATF for guns recovered in Mexico have increased since Project Gunrunner was established in 2006, from 1,904 to almost 22,000 in FY 2009, most trace requests that are submitted to ATF from Mexico are considered “unsuccessful” because of missing or improperly entered gun data.
|Source: OIG Analysis of ATF data|
Although ATF has provided Mexican law enforcement with training in firearms identification, the percentage of total Mexican trace requests that succeed has declined since the start of Project Gunrunner. Moreover, few of the traces generate usable investigative leads because guns submitted for tracing often were seized by Mexican officials years before the trace requests were submitted.
Our review also found that because of a lack of resources, ATF has been unable to fully meet Mexican government needs for training and support under Project Gunrunner. At the time of our fieldwork in June 2010, ATF had a substantial backlog in responding to requests for information from Mexican authorities, which hindered coordination between ATF and Mexican law enforcement.
The OIG made a total of 15 recommendations to help ATF improve its implementation of Project Gunrunner, including that ATF should improve its intelligence sharing with other federal law enforcement agencies and that ATF should work with the government of Mexico to improve the rate of successful traces. The OIG is reviewing information that ATF recently provided on how it will implement our recommendations.
The OIG examined ATF’s National Response Team (NRT). Since 1978, the NRT has assisted state, local, and other federal law enforcement agencies in determining the cause and origin of over 700 arson and explosives investigations, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As of September 2010, the NRT consisted of 3 team leaders, 16 full-time members, and 112 part-time members from throughout ATF. An activated team normally consists of approximately 15 agents attempting to arrive on-scene within 24 hours of being requested to assist and staying on-site for 3 to 7 days. The NRT members have two primary types of equipment to aid their investigation during an activation—NRT response vehicles and hazmat trailers, as illustrated in the following figures.
|Source: OIG Audit Report 11-09>|
Many state and local agencies acknowledge the NRT’s valuable expertise and experience on large-scale arson and explosives investigations and told the OIG that without the NRT’s assistance, their agencies either could not have completed their investigations or could not have completed their investigations as thoroughly or as efficiently. However, the OIG audit found that ATF did not have an adequate means of assessing the utilization and effectiveness of the NRT and, as a result, may not have used the NRT to its full potential. For example, the audit found that ATF field divisions requested NRT assistance in only 10 percent of Priority 1 cases, which are incidents involving commercial or industrial property with estimated damages of $1 million or more, at least 1 death, or more than 10 injuries. In addition, the audit found that 9 of ATF’s 25 field divisions did not use the NRT in FYs 2007 through 2009, and 3 additional field divisions only used the team once during those 3 years. The report notes that some state and local agencies in rural areas may be unaware of the NRT’s existence and its capabilities, and that some agencies in large, urban areas may choose not to use the NRT because they have sufficient resources and training to conduct such investigations on their own. The following chart illustrates the number of NRT activations and Priority 1 cases by ATF field division.
|Source: OIG analysis of ATF’s National Field Office Case Information System data|
In addition, ATF failed to perform routine inspections of NRT response vehicles and hazardous materials equipment, thereby impeding effectiveness of operations, safety, and decisions concerning replacing existing equipment. The report also notes that frequent turnover in NRT management positions, inadequate interaction between NRT program management and team members, and insufficient data on NRT activations have contributed to low morale among some NRT members.
The report made 10 recommendations for ATF to improve the utilization, effectiveness, and management of the NRT Program. ATF is working to implement corrective action.
During this reporting period, the OIG received 227 complaints involving ATF personnel. The most common allegations made against ATF employees were waste and mismanagement; and off-duty violations. The majority of the complaints were considered management issues and were provided to ATF for its review and appropriate action.
During this reporting period, the OIG opened nine cases and referred four allegations to the ATF’s OPR for action or investigation. At the close of the reporting period, the OIG had 14 open criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct related to ATF employees. The criminal investigations include theft and fraud.
|Source: Investigations Data Management System|
The following is an example of a case involving ATF that the OIG’s Investigations Division handled during this reporting period:
- A joint investigation by the OIG’s Detroit Area Office, the ATF’s Internal Affairs Division, and the DEA Cleveland Resident Office resulted in the arrest and guilty plea of an ATF special agent in the Columbus Field Division to charges of embezzlement. The investigation determined that during the execution of a multi-agency search warrant at a residence in Ohio, the special agent stole $46,875 in cash that had been hidden in the master bedroom. The special agent resigned his position with ATF as a result of the OIG investigation. The ATF agent was sentenced to 12 months plus one day of incarceration followed by 36 months’ supervised release.
Federal Firearms Licensee Inspection Program
The OIG is reviewing ATF’s federal firearms licensee inspection program. After an OIG review in 2004, ATF made a series of changes to that program and its administrative action process. This review is assessing the changes made to the program, ATF’s process for inspecting licensed firearms dealers, the process for referring suspected criminal violations, and how ATF institutes administrative actions on licensed dealers that violate federal firearms laws and regulations.
Income-Generating Undercover Operations
The OIG is conducting an audit of ATF’s income-generating undercover operations to assess ATF’s management of the revenue generated from these operations and its management of funds appropriated for the program. In addition, we seek to determine whether ATF ensures that proceeds from income-generating undercover operations are properly allocated at the conclusion of the operations.