The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) now denies that it's censoring John Dodson, the agent at the center of the "gunwalking" controversy known as Operation Fast and Furious, just days after receiving a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union for doing pretty much that.
Dodson, widely celebrated by conservatives as a whistleblower in the case, had sought an outside work application to publish a book manuscript, The Unarmed Truth: My Fight to Blow the Whistle and Expose Fast and Furious. The ATF roundly rejected his request, arguing that the account "would have a negative impact on morale." It was Dodson who went public with claims that the ATF purposefully funneled guns to Mexican drug cartels as a means of tracking them. A significant conservative controversy that never really picked up steam in the mainstream media, the agent's allegations led to Attorney General Eric Holder being held in contempt of Congress in 2012.
Now, basing its case on a subtle distinction, the ATF says its block is not an attempt at censorship but simply a routine denial of an outside employment request — which, the spokesperson reminds us, "can be denied for any reason." Here's the ATF special agent Tim Graden's reasoning, via a statement to Townhall:
ATF has not denied the publishing of a manuscript or an individual’s 1st Amendment rights. We have denied an employee’s outside employment which can be denied for any reason by a supervisor. While his supervisor stated morale and interagency issues for the denial, the fact remains no agent may profit financially from information gained through his federal employment while still an employee. This is not about 1st Amendment rights this is about a current employee trying to profit financially from knowledge he has gained while currently employed as a special agent.
As we've previously explained, the distinction at play here is that the ATF can legally block Dodson from receiving compensation from any non-government source — but not necessarily from sharing his story. But as Graden alludes, the ATF's letter of denial tells a different story: that Dodson's request "would have a negative impact on morale" and "would have a detrimental effect on our relationships with DEA and FBI." Plus, Dodson claims the ATF never bothered asking if he was planning to receive compensation from the book in the first place.
Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley, meanwhile — who together penned a foreword for the book — have written to the ATF with their own concerns: they want more information. Via Politico:
Issa and Grassley asked ATF to provide more information about Dodson’s case by 5 p.m. on Oct 22, asking for all cases since the beginning of 2009 when an employee asked to publish a manuscript, all documents related to Dodson’s request, all requests for outside employment since the beginning of 2012 and current employees who are engaging in approved outside employment.
The Republicans are also calling it "disconcerting" that the ATF is seemingly blocking Dodson because his book "might be uncomfortable and embarrassing to some within your organization." Their investment in the book comes as little surprise: it was Issa who accused the Department of Justice of being in on the operation before it was public, despite emails from Attorney General Holder suggesting that wasn't the case. (Issa also tried to claim the ATF's operation was a plot to toughen gun laws.)
But Dodson's role as a whistleblower still remains fraught: Fortune cast serious doubt on his claims with a 2012 investigation that concluded the ATF never intentionally let drug cartels get ahold of its guns. By Katherine Eban's report, it was only John Dodson who let the guns be sold to cartels — and he did so in violation of his supervisor's instructions.
Dodson has already sued Fortune's publisher, Time Inc., for libel. If he gets his way with the manuscript, readers will have access to his side of the story in January, when Simon & Schuster intends to publish the book.