Voices
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Agencies gone rogue

Government | Private citizens unknowingly become part of, and victims of, government stings

Issue: "The wonder of life," Jan. 25, 2014

Picture this: You’re a businessman operating a small trucking company in your hometown. In August you hire a driver who soon after takes a second job with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It’s a sting operation: running marijuana from Mexico in order to bag members of a drug cartel. The driver doesn’t tell you what he’s doing with your truck. The DEA doesn’t tell you what they’re doing with your truck.

Very early on an October morning, the phone rings with news from a business acquaintance: “Your driver was shot eight times in the cab of your truck, and he was hauling a load of marijuana. What’s the story?”

This happened two years ago to business owner Craig Patty. It took a while to sort out the story. At a rendezvous point in Houston, DEA agents, together with local law enforcement, were supposed to catch the bad guys red-handed. The bad guys pre-emptively hijacked the truck. A wild-west gun battle ensued, during which a sheriff’s deputy was wounded and the truck driver riddled with bullets.

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The driver was the big loser in the bungled operation, but Patty—who, again, never had a clue—was left with a damaged truck and a license number that appeared on the evening news and was now known to every drug kingpin in Mexico. For several months after the incident, he feared he might end up just as dead as his driver. After receiving no apologies from the DEA, much less compensation, he filed a lawsuit that, with sluglike speed, is only now beginning to crawl through the court system.

Here’s a worse story: In Wichita, one Tony Bruner, a convicted felon with a low IQ, was “recruited” by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to assist in illegal gun sales. Unlike Craig Patty’s driver, Tony didn’t know he was working for the ATF. He thought the store they’d set up as a front was a real business, and he was at last working a real job.

Agents encouraged and complimented him as he found and sold dozens of unregistered weapons—and when the sting was over, they arrested and charged him with more than a hundred counts of felony gun possession. The judge was lenient and sentenced him to a “mere” three years, but Tony, in spite of his low IQ, is smart enough to know that three years are plenty long enough for fellow inmates to work their own rough justice on him if they think he cooperated willingly with the feds.

Such operations may not be common, but neither are they unique, according to a watchdog report published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “ATF uses rogue tactics in storefront stings across the nation” is the title: fake drug-buying hangouts set up near schools, where minors are given alcohol; agents remodeling rented properties and sticking landlords with the bill; teens unknowingly recruited into marijuana stings. Notice the title does not reference rogue agents—the agents are operating on orders from the agency. In similar fashion, the DEA thought it was a good idea to trap drug dealers using the property and employee of a private citizen without his permission.

They have to justify their own existence; more convictions equal a larger share of the budget. “[T]he numbers are all that count,” according to an ATF agent quoted in the Journal Sentinel report. Pressure for convictions leads to random fishing operations, and worse. As Jeremiah said, “[T]hey lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men. … They know no bounds ... they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (Jeremiah 5:26-28).

Federal agents protest they are just doing their jobs, and our streets are safer for it. But enforcing the law by breaking the law will eventually result in something other than safety. Lines drawn in the dark are easily crossed, including the line between protecting citizens and abusing them.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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