Back in January, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released a scathing report of a botched sting operation led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The report began with a tip from a Milwaukee landlord that the ATF had damaged his building after using it as a front. The landlord also said the operation left behind sensitive materials that gave away details about the ATF undercover agents and the sting.
Reporters John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge investigated and found the landlord’s report was just the beginning of the story. They found the agents had hired a mentally disabled man to help them set up gun and drug deals, then arrested him on gun and drug counts after the sting was over. They also found that a machine gun and other weapons had been stolen during the operation.
When the report came out, ATF officials said the article featured isolated incidents, so the newspaper decided to challenge them on that claim. For the past year, Diedrich and Rutledge have investigated other stings in cities across the country, including Portland, and found similar issues.
The Portland sting was known as “Operation Kraken,” and resulted in the recovery of 77 guns and 47 arrests in 2011. Agents used a front business: Squid’s Smoke Shop, where agents bought guns from targets. In Portland, as in Milwaukee, the ATF took advantage of at least one mentally disabled man — going so far as to convince him to get a tattoo of a squid smoking a joint to promote the front business. The operation also left a landlord with tens of thousands of dollars in repairs. Squid’s Smoke Shop was located across the street from H.B. Lee Middle School, which allowed for higher penalties for selling guns and drugs. One the agents claimed the ATF didn’t realize its proximity to the school when it chose the location.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the tactics exposed by the reporting at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.