NIEVES: The Brian Terry exception

Quick turnaround in federal probes absent in shameful murder case

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Anyone who has spent time in Washington knows government runs on process. There is a procedure for everything, and this is especially true in federal law enforcement, where lives

are at risk every day. I should know, I spent most of my adult life as an agent with Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

As chief of major investigations in the 1990s, I managed DEA’s highly sensitive undercover operations targeting the Medellin and Cali cartels. We routinely coordinated with our colleagues in the Department of Justice (DOJ) and enjoyed great success. Agent safety always was paramount in our discussions, and we were successful, in large part, because we followed procedures for the review of sensitive undercover operations.

Before commencing a sensitive operation, the field office had to prepare an operations plan detailing the activities it intended to pursue and the goals of the operation. Once the op plan was received, it was vetted in DEA headquarters to include coordination with any foreign office impacted by the proposal, the U.S. Embassy and host-nation counterparts. After vetting, the plan would be presented to Justice for approval, which included a meeting attended by the field managers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, DEA headquarters and a deputy assistant attorney general from the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. This careful and tedious review and approval process was carried out by the Sensitive Activities Review Committee (SARC). Only after a successful SARC review would the DEA administrator and the deputy assistant attorney general from the Criminal Division authorize and approve the operation. If an operation was particularly sensitive, the approval process would rise to the level of the attorney general. I am aware that the FBI has a similar review committee for sensitive undercover operations.

Wouldn’t the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a Justice law enforcement bureau, have similar procedures for obtaining approval for sensitive undercover operations like Operation Fast and Furious? It defies logic to assume that the Department of Justice would give ATF a pass on the review-committee process in a matter as serious as allowing automatic weapons to be delivered to Mexican drug-smuggling cartels.

Equally illogical is the behavior of the department’s “independent” inspector general (IG). He has had the Fast and Furious case for 14 months but hasn’t issued a report of initial findings. At one point in my career, I was an inspector in DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility. This office is similar in many relevant respects to that of Justice’s inspector general. I have never heard of any case that took 14 months for a report on initial findings to be issued. Why is the Fast and Furious case taking so long? Is the IG incompetent, or is he being told to delay the issuance of his report? Either way, the family of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry loses. His parents are being denied access to the facts surrounding the death of their son, who was killed with one of the Fast and Furious weapons. To put this in perspective, the FBI issued its first report on the Kennedy assassination, one of the most complex and controversial cases in U.S. history, just 17 days after the event.

We recently learned about Secret Service agents consorting with prostitutes in Colombia. During a nationally televised TV appearance, President Obama called the agents who partied with the prostitutes “knuckleheads.” Mr. Obama told Jimmy Fallon: “What these guys were thinking, I don’t know. That’s why they’re not there anymore,” a reference to the fact that a mere two weeks after the event, two agents had been fired and several others had been removed from their positions.

What about the Justice and ATF knuckleheads who approved Fast and Furious?

What were they thinking? Have any of them lost their jobs? More than 18 months have passed, and no one at Justice or ATF who approved this fiasco has been fired - and this case doesn’t involve Colombian prostitutes. This is a case where one of their own, Terry, a federal agent, was killed by weapons provided by ATF - a tragic case of “friendly” fire by proxy.

One of my bosses at DEA once told me, “Bad news is not fine wine; it does not get better with age.” He couldn’t have been more correct. If there is bad news at Justice or in the IG’s reports, better to air it now. Otherwise, everyone will wonder if the information being hidden is another of Washington’s “inconvenient truths.” Now that the president has placed the mantle of executive privilege over the Justice reports, the Terry family and the families of countless numbers of murdered Mexican citizens may have to wait decades to know the truth.

There is something very, very wrong with the way the Terry case is being handled. Take that as gospel from a former fed who wants nothing but the truth to come out so federal agents everywhere can learn from mistakes made and know the Department of Justice still has their backs. But even more important, Justice needs to come clean so the Terrys can know exactly what happened to their son.

A few months ago, Mr. Obama commented on the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, saying, “You know if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Then he added a statement that made me think of my own children: “You know, I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

It’s a shame our president doesn’t feel the same way about Brian Terry. I have a daughter and two sons. One of my sons is a federal agent. He looks a lot like Brian Terry.

Robert J. Nieves is a partner in the firm BERG Associates. He retired from DEA in 1995 as the chief of international operations.

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