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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Botched gun-sale scheme deserves more scrutiny

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Is The Blade engaged in a cover-up of border patrol abuses in order to protect the Obama Administration?

George Sailer of Temperance, Mich., thinks that might be the case, based on his viewing of the Fox News Channel.

"I have not seen anything in The Blade about Operation Fast and Furious," he complained. "As you probably know, the U.S. government has been caught facilitating the sale of thousands of firearms from Texas gun dealers to Mexican drug dealers under the pretense that they were going to be traced to drug kingpins."

"Recently a U.S. border patrolman by the name of Brian Terry was shot and killed by one of these weapons … why is this disaster not being covered by the news media, including The Blade?

"The only reason I can think of for the media silence is that they are covering for the Obama Administration," he charged.

Well, there are a number of answers to Mr. Sailer's questions. Your ombudsman has criticized The Blade on many occasions, but while the staff makes mistakes from time to time, they are all professionals whose integrity is a large reason they have their jobs.

I have never seen any sign that anybody here has even dreamed of participating in a cover-up by any administration -- national, state, or local. Instead, the investigative reporters here would be thrilled to have a chance to expose any cover-up.

Mr. Sailer seems to be correct, however, when he notes that the newspaper hasn't covered this story. Blade Librarian Jordie Henry did a thorough search of the newspaper's archives and found nothing on this interesting case -- though she found material about it elsewhere.

While some of what happened is controversial, these seem to be the undisputed facts: A border patrol agent named Brian Terry was killed in a December shootout with heavily armed Mexican interlopers in Arizona. There was indeed an operation called Fast and Furious being run by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, usually known by its acronym, ATF.

Fast and Furious was operated out of the Phoenix office of ATF and seems to have been designed to monitor weapons sales by suspected gun traffickers to Mexican drug cartels. The aim was to be able to build a case against the gun runners. But things appear to have been bungled: Two guns found at the scene where Mr. Terry was killed were traced to Operation Fast and Furious, though it is not clear whether one killed Mr. Terry.

That much is not in dispute. Almost everything else is. Since the incident, some congressional Republicans and Fox News have attempted to tie the killing to the Obama Administration.

However, there has been very little about this in the mainstream media and nothing in The Blade.

Why? Well, for one thing, The Blade attempts to be a full-service newspaper but concentrates its limited resources on this region, which has certainly had its share of news in the past year.

Border security is an important issue, and the story of what everybody seems to now agree was a harebrained idea, poorly flawed and poorly executed, would, in your ombudsman's opinion, make a compelling and significant story.

The Blade, however, doesn't have adequate resources to report every story, and the wire services haven't offered a lot of coverage here either, with the exception of a story in June by the Dow Jones News Service, which is owned by the same company that owns Fox, and a story in January from the Los Angeles Times.

The Fox News Channel is generally recognized in journalistic circles to be a partisan outfit heavily slanted to the right. Some of its claims about this case are disputed.

While there is a general consensus that Operation Fast and Furious was badly run, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the operation was never intended to allow weapons to be trafficked to Mexico. Mr. Holder has ordered a full investigation.

Hearings by a House committee looking into the matter have revealed appalling bungling. U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), normally an administration supporter, called the operation "very troubling" and added that "surveillance of suspected straw purchasers was discontinued repeatedly, seemingly for no reason."

However, Mr. Terry's family added that while they thought the operation was "reckless and ill-conceived," they had no desire to see anyone in the government criminally indicted. Instead, they said they want his killers prosecuted. So far one of the Mexicans apprehended that night has been charged.

This is a story that goes to the heart of many border-control issues but not one that has been high on the national radar screen.

Frankly, while there has been nothing unethical about The Blade's not having covered it, Operation Fast and Furious probably deserves more scrutiny.

Incidentally, there is almost a local connection. Before slain Agent Terry joined the ATF, he was a police officer in Lincoln Park, Mich., barely 40 miles north of Toledo.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don't leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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