ATF’s an­swer for leak­ing se­crets: A fir­ing squad?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY KEL­LAN HOW­ELL

Af­ter months of an­guished de­bate over mass shoot­ings, gun con­trol and Sec­ond Amend­ment rights, the Jus­tice Depart­ment finds it­self on the de­fen­sive af­ter a train­ing man­ual sur­faced that sug­gests fed­eral agents could face a fir­ing squad for leak­ing gov­ern­ment se­crets.

The online man­ual for the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives — com­plete with a photo of a turn-of-the-cen­tury fir­ing squad — was ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Times from a con­cerned fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cial, and it im­me­di­ately drew protests from watch­dogs who said it showed a lack of sen­si­tiv­ity to gun vi­o­lence and the con­tin­u­ing hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment to­ward whistle­blow­ers.

Stephen Kohn, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Whistle­blower Center, said the DOJ has for­got­ten about the pro­tec­tions of the First Amend­ment, which cov­ers leaks to the me­dia, and that the photo could scare its em­ploy­ees into self-cen­sor­ship.

The photo “would have a chill­ing af­fect on le­git­i­mate speech. And some of the rhetoric used against whistle­blow­ers could be con­strued as in­cit­ing to vi­o­lence be­cause they’ve turned up the rhetoric,” Mr. Kohn said.

Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials said the photo was in­cluded as a joke and that they were un­aware it was viewed as of­fen­sive by agents. They plan to re­move the en­try, but not un­til the gov­ern­ment shut­down is ended and fed­eral of­fi­cials re­turn to work, said Richard Mar­i­anos, the spe­cial agent in charge of the Wash­ing­ton di­vi­sion of ATF.

The photo was em­bed­ded in the an­nual In­tro­duc­tion to Na­tional Se­cu­rity In­for­ma­tion online course for the ATF, the main fed­eral law en­force­ment agency in­ves­ti­gat­ing gun vi­o­lence and il­le­gal gun traf­fick­ing.

Richard Roberts, a pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the In­ter­na­tional Union of Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tions, said his opin­ion is that the photo is noth­ing more than a hu­mor­ous at­tempt to un­der­score a se­ri­ous point.

“Dur­ing many years of law en­force­ment ex­pe­ri­ence, I can at­test to the fact that law en­force­ment per­son­nel of­ten use gal­lows hu­mor as a re­lease from the grim re­al­i­ties of the pro­fes­sion,” he said.

But watch­dogs raised im­me­di­ate­con­cerned that the im­age may have an un­in­tended chill­ing ef­fect on DOJ em­ploy­ees, as the agency has of­ten been crit­i­cized for its han­dling of whistle­blow­ers.

While the DOJ may be mak­ing light of a se­ri­ous pol­icy, Mr. Kohn said the photo was hyp­o­crit­i­cal, un­con­sti­tu­tional and un­pro­fes­sional.

“The gov­ern­ment leaks in­for­ma­tion all the time and they get away with it,” Mr. Kohn said. “They don’t go af­ter leaks that they sup­port. The gov­ern­ment leaks, and when it is of­fi­cially con­doned they do not in­ves­ti­gate or pros­e­cute.”

A ma­jor in­ci­dent that Mr. Kohn ref­er­enced was the case of for­mer U.S. At­tor­ney Richard Con­vertino, who was re­moved from his po­si­tion in Michi­gan by the DOJ af­ter the DOJ leaked neg­a­tive in­for­ma­tion about him.

“It sig­nif­i­cantly harmed his rep­u­ta­tion, turned out not to be true, and we filed a pri­vacy act law­suit in 2003 and we are still fight­ing with the Jus­tice Depart­ment to try to find out who the source of that leak was,” Mr. Kohn said. “They have used well over $1 mil­lion of tax­payer re­sources to cover up a DOJ em­ployee who vi­o­lated the law when he leaked in­for­ma­tion to de­fame a whistle­blower and that’s one of the big­gest prob­lems with this whole cam­paign against leaks.”

Mr. Kohn said the DOJ has for­got­ten about the pro­tec­tions of the First Amend­ment, which cov­ers leaks to the me­dia. There is also Supreme Court prece­dent in the case of Pick­er­ing v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion which es­tab­lished the con­sti­tu­tional right of pub­lic em­ploy­ees to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion to the news me­dia, he said.

“This is a cam­paign to si­lence and in­tim­i­date whistle­blow­ers and what is the most trou­bling part of this ag­gres­sive cam­paign, is that the jus­tice depart­ment has com­pletely ig­nored the first amend­ment,” Mr. Kohn said.

Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper said res­i­dents of his state “don’t re­ally like out­side or­ga­ni­za­tions med­dling in their af­fairs,” re­fer­ring to groups from out of state that got in­volved in a pair of state Se­nate re­call elec­tions. De­spite their help, two Democrats lost their seats over gun con­trol.

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