Although plenty of media attention has been focused on “Project Gunrunner” in recent months, a number of journalists have increasingly focused on the ironically (and aptly) renamed “Project Gunwalker.”
To be clear, “Project Gunrunner” refers to an initiative overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives (ATF), the purpose of which is to investigate, monitor, and stem the smuggling and transport of weapons between the United States and Mexico, primarily in border areas between the two nations.
In light of increasing gun-related and drug-related crime in Mexico in recent years – violence that has recently spilled across the border in the U.S., resulting in the deaths of several Americans – both “Project Gunrunner” and the ATF have been the recipients of sharp criticism from a number of constituencies. Media attention on like border issues reached new levels when, in December of 2010, a gun used in the killing of an American border agent was eventually traced back to the U.S., and allegedly, to the ATF.
Enter “Project Gunwalker.” In a story first broken by journalists David Codrea and Mike Vanderboegh, Codrea sarcastically referred to the ATF program as “Project Gunwalker,” implying that ATF agents were responsible for the smuggling of a number of firearms into Mexico, effectively walking the weapons across the border and placing them in the hands of Mexican criminals.
Codrea and Vanderboegh claim that internal ATF whistleblowers informed them that agency management was knowingly and deliberately allowing hundreds of semiautomatic guns to be walked across the desert border into Mexico. Although such an act on the part of the ATF – whose job is essentially to prevent gun smuggling – seems unfathomable, Codrea and Vanderboegh reported that by allowing the guns into Mexico, the agency could effectively pad gun-related crime statistics and prove that Mexican drug cartels were using American-derived firearms, all in an effort to encourage continued federal funding of ATF projects.
The report went on to claim that Mexican authorities were kept in the dark despite internal ATF objections. Allegedly, like concerns were overruled by not only the Phoenix ATF office, but by high-ranking officials in Washington, D.C. In the lead-up to Codrea and Vanderboegh’s story, murmurings of misdeeds began increasingly surfacing in a number of forums and online publications.
After a gun used in the killing of U.S. border agent Brian Terry was reportedly linked to an alleged internal ATF smuggling program, media coverage of “Gunrunner/Gunwalker” hit a fever pitch. Codrea and Vanderboegh’s findings were soon made available on CleanUpATF.org, with both journalists claiming to have been contacted by ATF insiders who corroborated claims of a gunrunning effort. According to Codrea, “Vanderboegh and I, who have a history going back years of documenting allegations posted there, and pressing for congressional hearings to investigate the claims, were both contacted independently by various ATF insiders claiming to have corroborating information and documentation.”
In the ensuing media mayhem, a number of national outlets began coverage of the potential scandal, with many calling for congressional investigations in to the allegations. In the interim, Codrea and Vanderboegh have stood by their reports, and have defended their sources, individuals who have remained largely anonymous.
According to Codrea, “[Vanderboegh] vetted his sources and I used my contacts to help validate that my informant was who he represented himself to be. Mike [Vanderboegh] and I did what we could throughout our separate and coordinated investigations to test and corroborate what was being told. We also had a small circle of behind-the-scenes consultants, including firearms designer Len Savage, and a few other knowledgeable advisors, all with contacts and informed insights of their own, and all of whom have earned our trust over the years.”
As details have continued to surface, allegations paint a picture of an interdepartmental government effort, with members of Justice Department and ATF accused of participating in what has become known as “Project Gunwalker.” A number of politicians, including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) of the Committee of the Judiciary, have recently joined the chorus of calls for a formal investigation, a formality that seems increasingly imminent. Grassley twice initiated investigation efforts by writing an open letter to the ATF in January of 2011. The ATF promptly denied all allegations through the Department of Justice. Grassley responded by including specific documentation in letters to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in February. In a subsequent formal briefing conducted by Grassley, ATF officials refused to answer specific questions on February 10th, 2011.
With the 2012 election rapidly approaching, politicians on all sides are likely to seize on the issue as an opportunity to garner political capital, and get to the bottom of the remarkable claims that the ATF, rather than cracking down on border gun smuggling, has literally allowed firearms to be walked into Mexico. To say the least, “Project Gunwalker” has served to heighten attention on an already volatile and violent border region.