I recently spent a few days on the Texas border observing a crackdown by U.S. law enforcement on gunrunning, part of the Obama administration's effort to keep weapons out of the hands of drug cartels on the rampage in Mexico.
Now Congress is learning that the two key government agencies involved in that effort can't get along.
A report just released by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, faults Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, for not coordinating their efforts against weapons being smuggled into Mexico.
This is more than your average turf war. Last year more than 7,000 Mexicans died in drug-related crime, most committed with U.S.-supplied weapons.
The GAO found several examples of miscommunication between ICE and ATF. In one operation, an undercover ATF agent investigating a suspected trafficker was placed under surveillance by an unknowing ICE agent.
In another case, ATF did not tell ICE about a covert operation where ATF agents delivered weapons across the border to try to snare Mexican criminals.
Critics say there should have been an antigunrunning strategy in place since October 2007, when the U.S. and Mexico agreed to the joint cartel-fighting Merida initiative.
"While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally trafficked into Mexico in a given year, over 20,000, or around 87 percent, of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced over the past five years originated in the United States," according to the testimony of GAO investigator Jess T. Ford.
In theory, ATF and ICE are supposed to cooperate under a 1978 agreement over dual investigations. Instead, the GAO cited that agreement as one of the obstacles to coordination. An updated agreement is in the works, the report said.
"This is the kind of stuff that happens all the time," said Sandalio Gonzalez, a retired senior DEA official who exposed a notorious case of agencies failing to coordinate in 2003-2004 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. In that case an ICE informant went on a killing rampage that jeopardized the lives of a DEA agent and his family. Not only did DEA personnel have to be evacuated from Juarez, but ICE refused to allow DEA to talk directly to the informant.
By coincidence, ICE and DEA this past week announced a new agreement to improve case information sharing. The two agencies will fully share case information electronically through the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Fusion Center to promote officer safety and avoid duplication of efforts, officials say.
"This agreement marks a new era of cooperation between ICE and DEA to combat drug smuggling," said Assistant Secretary John Morton.
But critics say the agreement papers over a sad reality. "The first thing you have to ask is why is an agreement necessary," said Gonzalez, questioning the operating mind-set and leadership within the Department of Homeland Security. "Why do you have to be required to share information?"
Gonzalez, who successfully sued the government for discrimination and retaliation for whistleblowing, points to a lack of leadership at the top, resulting in a failure to keep agency rivalries under control, as well as agent egos.
The new agreement was in essence a "regurgitation" of previous agreements and law, he said, but lacks provisions for sanctions against violations.
"It will only make a difference if the attorney general stands up and holds their feet to the fire. Otherwise, as with previous similar agreements, it's just a piece of paper."
David Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.