Monday, September 5, 2011

Sipsey Street Exclusive: "Meetings, Part 5." David Ogden Goes to Houston. GRITs, "The Surge" on the Border and Gloryholes.

"The Surge": Deputy Attorney General of the United States David Ogden, flanked by ATF Houston Field Division SAC Dewey Webb and Acting ATF Director Melson, 1 October 2009.

"Things like this happen because of meetings. People sit in meetings and they decide what they want to happen. And then they take decisions, make policy and implement that policy to achieve those ends." He added, "That's why State is so nervous. They signed off on this. In a meeting." . . . He added, "Of course the meeting transcripts won't reflect the truth so plainly, but then neither did the Wannsee Conference. These bastards always talk in riddles about what they're really after. Watch what they do, not what they say." -- Old DC intelligence community member, quoted in Meetings: Part One.

No, not that kind of grits.

On 28 April 2009, the ATF announced the roll-out of something called the "Gun Runner Impact Teams," or GRITs, in Houston. The new Acting Director of ATF, Kenneth Melson, was there for the occasion. The Obama administration wanted everybody to know that it took the smuggling of guns to Mexico seriously, very seriously.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Acting Director Kenneth Melson and Special Agent in Charge J. Dewey Webb, Houston Field Division, today announced the arrival of its Gun Runner Impact Teams (GRITs) personnel to the Houston Field Division in support of ATF’s Southwest Border strategy, Project Gunrunner.

The GRITs will add special agents, industry operations investigators, analytical, legal, technical and administrative support personnel, along with investigative equipment and other resources to Project Gunrunner. This supplemental initiative will be operational for 120 days, and is intended to target and disrupt the groups and organizations responsible for trafficking firearms to Mexico.

“Narcotics trafficking fuels firearms-related violent crime across the United States, not just on the Southwest Border. But the violence on the Border is concentrated and financed by powerful drug trafficking organizations with a penchant for making blood money and shattering lives using guns illegally,” said ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson. “With GRIT personnel, ATF has drawn a line in the sand against violent crime in Texas and the entire country.”

The ATF Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information, using intelligence from trace data, has created numerous investigative leads. This initiative will focus on increasing: the number of firearms trafficking investigations opened/closed during this period; the number of defendants referred for prosecution; and the number of firearms and other evidence recovered. ATF intends to reduce the availability of guns to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

ATF’s violent crime-fighting and firearms trafficking expertise and regulatory authority, along with its strategic domestic and international partnerships will help combat the increasing violence along the U.S.–Mexico border, as well as throughout the country.

"ATF intends to reduce the availability of guns to Mexican drug trafficking organizations." Melson's speech gives more details:

For more than 30 years, ATF has been at the frontline in the fight against violent crime. Although I am less than three weeks in the job as Acting Director of this proud federal law enforcement agency — as a career federal prosecutor, I have been well aware of its diverse and important mission.

Breaking up firearms trafficking rings; putting organized gangs behind bars; and halting the diversion of legal commodities to the black market have been staples of ATF’s law enforcement efforts. I’m honored to be a part of this agency.

The violent crime we are witnessing on the U.S.–Mexico border is a microcosm of the gun violence plaguing much of America — from urban neighborhoods to heartland communities. Narcotics trafficking fuels firearms-related violent crime across our country, not just on the Southwest Border.

But the violence on the Border is concentrated and financed by powerful drug trafficking organizations with a penchant for making blood money and shattering lives by using guns illegally.

ATF recognized the upward trend in violent, criminal acts along the Border and created a strategy to address it.

In partnership with other U.S. agencies and the Government of Mexico, ATF developed Project Gunrunner as a pilot initiative around 2005. Realizing its success, ATF nationalized the effort a little more than a year ago, in January 2008, to stem the flow of firearms into Mexico and reduce violence on both sides of the border.

We have experienced real results through Project Gunrunner, with more cases being developed annually and an increasing number of defendants being referred for prosecution.

ATF uses intelligence gleaned from its firearms trace data and other sources to place special agents strategically in geographic areas along the entire border — to deny firearms, the “tools of the trade,” to criminal organizations in Mexico.

Ever turning up the heat on cartels, our law enforcement and military partners in the government of Mexico have been working more closely with ATF by sharing information and intelligence. Most dramatically has been the increase in firearms trace submissions to ATF.

That information is allowing us to identify trafficking patterns, trends and organizations on both sides of our shared border.

In fact, ATF has been so successful at developing leads that just a few months ago, we saw the need to relocate experienced, human resources from other parts of the country to this south Texas region to follow up on that information.

Today, I am pleased to announce the deployment of our Gun Runner Impact Teams, referred to in-house as GRITs, to the ATF Houston Field Division.

More than 100 ATF veteran special agents, industry operations investigators, analysts and support personnel will spend the next 120 days developing cases against firearms traffickers; as part of this intelligence-driven supplemental initiative to Project Gunrunner.

The GRITs will be implemented in three phases. In Phase One, special agents will follow up on existing firearms trafficking leads which were developed primarily by recovered and traced firearms from Mexico. These leads will be prioritized according to their investigative potential.

The deployment of additional industry operations investigators will allow the inspection of 700 more federal firearms licensees in the region.

In Phase Two, the information developed as a result of Phase One interviews and FFL inspections will be the basis for initiating new and comprehensive firearms trafficking investigations.

Phase Three will be the conclusion of this initiative, as criminal case referrals for prosecution in the U.S. and Mexico, indictments and arrests take place.

ATF will continue tracing firearms recovered in Mexico, which may indicate an increase or decrease in the number of U.S. sourced firearms.

The GRITs will likely increase the number of firearms and other evidence interdicted, recovered or seized by ATF and other U.S. law enforcement agencies acting on ATF information.

ATF has been fighting violent crime using all the investigative, regulatory and legislative tools available to us. In the arena of law enforcement intelligence, nothing has been more valuable than firearms trace data.

Though no one in U.S. law enforcement knows definitively the numbers of guns recovered and seized by the government of Mexico annually, ATF has gathered important firearms trafficking information from the number of firearms Mexico does submit each year.

We applaud our partners in Mexico for stepping up their efforts to trace more firearms.

When it comes to crime gun tracing, ATF’s goal for Mexico is the same as for our domestic law enforcement partners. Comprehensive tracing, or 100 percent tracing of crime guns, would give law enforcement a very clear picture of who the traffickers are, what routes they use and how they develop their schemes for trafficking illicit firearms.

ATF understands the importance of keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and prohibited persons. We will continue to work closely with the firearms industry through our joint “Don’t Lie For the Other Guy” campaign.

Federal firearms licensees must realize they are at the frontline with ATF in keeping legal commodities in America — firearms — out of the hands of criminals.

We are educating licensed gun dealers, through seminars and compliance inspections, along the Southwest Border at a pace that will ensure all are touched by ATF within a three-year period. That’s important, because ATF realizes the importance of denying the drug cartels the tools of the trade that they use to cause violence and death.

ATF prides itself on the strength of its relationships with law enforcement partners at every level of government throughout the United States. The Southwest Border is clearly one of the most important areas where we rely on these relationships to improve safety and security.

The success of Project Gunrunner and the Gun Runner Impact Teams depend on the cooperation and information sharing among ATF, DEA, FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as ICE, CBP and state and local law enforcement agencies.

Only by working together with all our law enforcement partners will ATF be able to effectively combat firearms trafficking and firearms-related violent crime to keep America safe.

I commend the leadership of the ATF Houston Field Division — Special Agent in Charge Dewey Webb, Assistant Special Agents in Charge Rob Elder and Armando Salas, and Director of Industry Operations Russel Vander Werf. They are leading the charge in this region to keep America safe from drug trafficking organizations.

With Gun Runner Impact Teams personnel, ATF has drawn a line in the sand against violent crime in Texas and the entire country.

This was the first solid evidence of what was called "the surge on the border" aka "The Southwest Border Initiative" of the Obama administration. It was designed as a temporary move, since the ATF did not yet have the finances provided by the stimulus bill to fund a more permanent ramping up of ATF forces on the border to expand Project Gunrunner. Melson had been told upon taking his new job that his number one priority was interdicting firearms to Mexico drug trafficking organizations. The entire agency, to the extent possible, was to be reorganized and redirected south to the border.

Five full months later, Deputy United States Attorney David Ogden came to town to declare the results.

Crowne Plaza Hotel, Smith Street, Houston, TX

Deputy Attorney General of the United States David Ogden arose from his bed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Houston on the morning of Thursday, 1 October 2009. The day before, as discussed in "Meetings, Part 4," he had been in Phoenix, trumpeting OCDETF. On this day he would have a series of meetings and another press conference, this time on Project Gunrunner. There had been a success, or so the Obama administration thought, and it was important to crow about it. More importantly, the money was now flowing to further expand upon that "success."

By 9:15 Central, Ogden was meeting with Acting U.S. Attorney Bryan Best and the various federal law enforcement SACs, hosted by ATF SAC Dewey Webb at the Houston ATF office at 15355 Vantage Parkway West, Suite 200.

From the press release:

Justice Department Announces Success in Battle Against Firearms Trafficking and Recovery Act Funds to Build on Project Gunrunner

HOUSTON – Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson today announced the results of ATF’s Gun Runner Impact Team (GRIT) initiative, a 120-day deployment of ATF resources to the Houston Field Division to disrupt illegal firearms trafficking by Mexican drug cartels. The Justice Department officials also outlined the $10 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds that have been allocated to support the initiative going forward.

GRIT was developed to aggressively target and disrupt groups and organizations responsible for trafficking firearms to Mexico. The GRIT initiative was a component of Project Gunner, ATF’s comprehensive firearms trafficking strategy along the Southwest Border.

"The Department of Justice has pledged its unconditional commitment to better protect the Southwest Border with initiatives such as Project Gunrunner, by targeting the source of the violence -- the illegal firearms traffickers," said Ogden. "The Department of Justice is using the vital funding from the Recovery Act to continue to build an infrastructure to combat violent crime and firearms trafficking along our southwest border as part of Project Gunrunner."

"This concentration of additional personnel accomplished more in four months than we were able to achieve in almost three years in some areas along the border," said Melson. "The temporary deployment of veteran ATF special agents and industry operations investigators (IOIs) to the Houston Field Division has made enormous inroads into stemming the firearms-related violent crime in the United States and along the Mexican border. We have begun to flush out firearms trafficking schemes and routes, producing tangible results in the form of open investigations, arrests, seizures and criminal case referrals."

The GRIT initiative brought 100 experienced ATF personnel from around the country to southern Texas. The special agents investigated more than 1,000 criminal leads and seized more than 440 illegal firearms, 141,440 rounds of ammunition, $165,000 in U.S. currency, 1,500 pounds of marijuana, and additional drugs and explosive devices. The IOIs conducted nearly 1,100 federal firearms licensee compliance inspections involving 70,000 firearms and resulting in 440 violations.

ATF’s GRIT special agents opened 276 federal firearms trafficking-related criminal cases in just four months.

ATF received $10 million through the Recovery Act to continue to build an infrastructure to further the accomplishments of Project Gunrunner. As part of the $10 million, ATF is hiring 25 new special agents, six industry operations investigators, three intelligence research specialists and three investigative analysts. The funding will establish three permanent field offices, dedicated to firearms trafficking investigations, in McAllen, Texas; El Centro, Calif.; and Las Cruces, N.M.; and a satellite office in Roswell, N.M.

"This concentration of additional personnel accomplished more in four months than we were able to achieve in almost three years in some areas along the border." Ah, yes, of course. The Bushies weren't smart enough to think about this, but WE are. The official report accompanying this dog-and-pony show can be found here.

Ogden's speech was to trumpet more of the same. The press conference began at 10:30AM:

Good morning. I am happy to be here today with ATF Acting Director Melson and our partners in state and local law enforcement to highlight the real successes of Project Gunrunner and announce our plans to build upon those accomplishments. This administration and this Justice Department have made protecting the integrity of our Southwest Border a top priority. That means stemming the tide of illegal drugs and illegal immigration across the border into the United States, and it means continuing our efforts here in Houston and along the border to stop the flow of illegal firearms from the United States to the drug cartels in Mexico.

Since March, when we announced our Southwest Border Strategy, we have taken concrete steps to disrupt and dismantle these cartels. Just last month, in Brooklyn and Chicago, we announced major drug-trafficking charges against 43 individuals including leaders, members, and associates from a number of these deadly drug cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Federation, the Juarez Cartel, and Los Gueros. As we know all too well, the cartels’ distribution networks in the United States help move these dangerous drugs from the border to neighborhoods across this country.

In addition to bringing these intelligence-driven, prosecutor-led cases against cartel leaders and associates, the President’s National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy includes millions in Recovery Act funds to fight crime and drug trafficking, a new arms trafficking working group, and new formal agreements with our partners at the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement, and the government of Mexico to increase cooperation that is vitally needed as we carry out this fight on several fronts. (Emphasis supplied, MBV.)

(MBV NOTE: "Intelligence-driven, prosecutor-led cases against cartel leaders and associates." The OCDETF structure and strategy, of course. "A new arms trafficking working group." Yes, more about THAT in an upcoming "Meetings.")

Our colleagues in some areas of Mexico face unprecedented levels of violence, due in large part to their valiant efforts to confront these dangerous and powerful cartels and their success in doing so. As efforts to disrupt and dismantle these powerful cartels gain momentum, the cartels have struck back with violence and terror. But this is not a problem Mexico alone must face. The drugs flow north into our communities and contribute to violence here and harm public health and safety and we know weapons from the United States flow south and are used in these violent attacks. So we must stand with Mexico as strong partners. It is the right thing to do and the only way to win this fight.

And thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ATF is building an infrastructure to combat violent crime and illegal firearms trafficking along our Southwest Border as part of Project Gunrunner, a comprehensive strategy to combat firearms-related violence by the drug cartels.

We intend to reduce the availability of guns to Mexican drug trafficking organizations. And we are accomplishing this goal by targeting those who enable the violence: the illegal firearms traffickers.

One component of Project Gunrunner is the Gun Runner Impact Teams or GRITs. These teams, working with federal, state, and local partners as well as the Mexican authorities, follow leads generated from crime guns recovered in Mexico. They use a combination of inspections of Federal firearms licensees or "FFLs," and investigations of both FFLs, and their customers, to target and disrupt gun trafficking groups and organizations who are supplying the drug cartels.

Intelligence gathered by GRITs since their inception in April 2008 revealed that the majority of crime guns recovered in Mexico traced back to Southern Texas. In response to that important information, we deployed 100 additional ATF personnel to its Houston Field Division to form additional Impact Teams bringing new focus on this key source area. The new GRITs tracked every lead we had tying guns used in cartel violence to sources here in South Texas, and developed new ones.

This campaign enabled ATF to pursue 700 backlogged leads and to develop and pursue 400 additional leads. The new GRITs also performed a surge of inspections of FFLs, here in South Texas. We learned that some gun dealers here were failing to conduct background checks, failing to keep tabs on their inventories, or failing to require the proper paperwork from their customers. These kinds of failures facilitate the illegal gun traffic to the cartels. Through inspections lawful gun dealers are incentivized to take greater care and are educated on how to identify suspicious purchasers and potential traffickers – creating new key sources of intelligence.

The GRITs also opened 276 full-scale investigations – that is more investigations in one four month period than the Houston Field Division had opened in any of the three previous calendar years. The new investigations, many of which are ongoing, revealed and disrupted firearms trafficking rings tied to specific Mexican drug trafficking organizations, such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. During the surge, the GRITs learned that many of these rings operate by recruiting teams of straw purchasers who accumulate numerous firearms by buying them from multiple FFLs and gun shows. Then, traffickers smuggle the guns into Mexico. In many cases the GRITs have traced the guns used in criminal activity in Mexico to these firearm trafficking rings.

In the course of these investigations, the GRITs seized almost 450 illegal firearms and our state and local partners here in South Texas seized approximately 170 more based on leads developed by the GRITs. The GRITs also took significant amounts of illegally possessed ammunition and drugs off the streets.

The leads and investigations developed during this surge have disrupted firearms traffickers and will undoubtedly result in prosecutions. And their impact goes farther: they gathered invaluable intelligence regarding the sources of the cartels’ illegal firearms, the methods used to traffic them, trafficking routes, smuggling methods, purchasing strategies, and recruiting strategies for straw purchasers. This intelligence will help solve future firearms crimes, detect illegal firearms traffickers, and reduce the international movement of illegal guns.

The surge has also sent a strong message to FFLs in this key region that they must be vigilant in keeping track of their inventory, performing background checks, keeping accurate records, and paying careful attention to any suspicious behavior by their customers.

The surge represented by this Houston GRIT initiative now concludes as these added personnel return to vital duties elsewhere in the country. I want to thank each of them for the Attorney General, the Department, and this country for their hard word these last 120 days. They leave behind a better situation and leave us with a much clearer picture of the illegal firearms trafficking activity that we face. Armed with the intelligence that they have developed, the Houston Field Division is much better equipped to continue toward its goal of keeping U.S. firearms out of the hands of the Mexican drug cartels.

Many of the personnel who return to other duties are being replaced by new personnel. Again, this is thanks to the Recovery Act which provided Project Gunrunner with $10 million to hire special agents, industry operations investigators and others to staff new offices to target the trafficker that places the gun into the hands of the violent criminal.

The first 20 new special agents graduate from the ATF Training Academy on October 15th.

These agents – along with 17 other Recovery Act funded ATF employees – will play an important role in our efforts to stem the flow of illegal firearms to the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. They are being added to ATF’s resident core of agents and other personnel who continue the vital work of Project Gunrunner, as well as teams from FBI, DEA, ICE, CBP, and our State and local partners, who form our team along the border.

The Department of Justice and its U.S. Attorneys are committed to working with that team, as well as our Mexican partners, to prosecute defendants charged with acts of violent crime, drug and human trafficking, the illegal smuggling of cash and financial instruments, and the trafficking of firearms.

Together we are determined to make a difference in the safety of our Southwest Border and throughout our country. Thank you.

Applauding loudly in the audience, my sources say was Russell Vander Werf, the same Director of Industry Operations (DIO) for Houston ATF who was lauded by Kenneth Melson five months earlier as "leading the charge in this region to keep America safe from drug trafficking organizations."

Two months later, in a defection from the paths of ATF glory, Russell did a bad thing.

2009, December. Russell Vander Werf, Director of Industry Operations (DIO) for Houston ATF (responsible for overseeing inspection of all federal gun and explosives licensees in the area), was arrested while in New Orleans, after damaging a hotel room in Metairie, LA. Damage consisted of disabling the fire alarm and replacing a bedroom door with a piece of plywood with a circular hole cut in the middle, wrapped in gray duct tape (known as a "glory hole)". The hotel manager had received a call reporting numerous young men entering and exiting the room and "sex noises" coming from the room. Vander Werf admitted that he put the plywood on the door and disabled the fire alarms. ATF confirmed Vander Werf was in the New Orleans area on official business. It has been confirmed that on or about Valentine's Day, 2011, Russell Vander Werf is being reassigned to ATF Headquarters in Washington. -- Wikipedia.

As far as I know, he is still there -- no longer "leading the charge" but just another disgraced ATF senior manager kept on the payroll at taxpayer expense to keep him under observation for what he may know. Some ATF street agent wag at posted this graphic:

The face, of course, is Vander Werf's. Thus did the senior ATF manager demonstrate that the path of even evanescent bureaucratic glory does not lead through the gloryhole.

At 11:00, Ogden left the press conference and was driven to the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas at 919 Milam, Suite 1500. There he met with Acting US Attorney Bryan Best and then had a "working lunch" with Executive Management and the South Texas AUSAs-in-Charge in the 15th Floor Executive Conference Room. Afterward, he dropped down to 11 for an "All Hands" meeting with the USAO staff, followed by a final meeting with the Senior AUSAs.

Why all the attention to the AUSAs? You may recall that future Project Gunwalker investigations and prosecutions were going to be, in Odgen's words, "intelligence-driven, prosecutor-led cases against cartel leaders and associates." In other words, OCDETF cases as described in "Meetings, Part 4." The AUSAs in all the border regions (and see the report cited above for a map of those regions) were going to be the drivers and arbiters of what was, and wasn't, going to happen from this point on in Project gunrunner cases.

By 2:15PM Ogden was en route to the Houston airport, where he later boarded United Airlines Flight #982 for the trip back to DC. He slept in his own bed that night, happy, no doubt, that he had accomplished what he set out to do.

Back in Houston, Jack Williams of KUHF-Houston Public Radio News filed a story: "Feds Say Houston is Gun Trafficking Hot-Spot," quoting Dewey Webb, "The number one source area in Texas was the Houston area."

Dewey Webb is the Special Agent in Charge of the Houston Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The ATF has just concluded a four month operation here, flooding the Houston area with 100 special agents and inspectors. The goal? To find out where drug cartels are getting their weapons. Turns out a lot of the guns come from legitimate gun dealers right here in Houston.

"Out of the 8,000 dealers in Texas, there's a little over 1,500 dealers here in the Houston area, so that makes Houston one of the number one stops because you can go to a different dealer everyday for months and months and months. Also, you have a bigger selection here. You have better prices here because there's more competition. Also, the dealers are larger dealers and they have more guns in stock. It just makes Houston the natural place to come."

Cartels use so-called "straw buyers" who purchase guns from the many different dealers here. Webb says it's not hard to find people to buy the guns.

"For the most part, they're looking for U.S. citizens that can legally go in and buy a gun and not raise a red flag, and that's typically who they recruit. It's very enticing if you go into somebody that's working in a fast food restaurant and say you can make $500 a day, go buy me ten guns at ten different dealers and we'll pay you $50 a gun. That's $500 a day for them, as opposed to what they're making working at a fast food restaurant."

Williams also reported this:

The operation ended in August, but ATF acting director Kenneth Melson says authorities now know a lot more about how gun-traffickers operate.

"I believe that the GRIT has led to a much better understanding of the source of these guns and the way that they are now becoming more sophisticated in obtaining the guns. How they are now insulating themselves through several layers of people and the straw purchasers so that we have to work farther up the chain to get these individuals."

Thus was the ostensible purpose of later gunwalking enunciated in early October 2009 by the Acting Director of the ATF, consistent with the policy desires of the White House laid down by the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, David Ogden.

(NOTE: In "Meetings, Part 6," we examine how 'the surge" and the use of GRITs in Phoenix worked out in actual practice.)

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