Fox Fails To Fact Check On Operation Castaway

Before last summer, Hugh Crumpler III was best known in central Florida as a professional bass guide.

But for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) he was a big fish.

Guns confiscated from Hugh Crumpler III. Photo Courtesy ATF

Crumpler, 64, was a key player in a major international gun smuggling network. It was taken down by the Tampa Field Division of the ATF with Operation Castaway, a six-month investigation that federal prosecutors called “the most significant firearms trafficking investigation in Central Florida history.”

Nothing in the more than 500 pages of Operation Castaway court documents, which are public records, indicate anything other than a textbook operation culminating in the interdiction of a large shipment of firearms bound for Honduras. Eight traffickers including Crumpler were convicted and sentenced to between two and a half and seven years in federal prison.

Despite this winning outcome, Operation Castaway is under attack from right-wing bloggers and Fox. These critics are disregarding basic standards of fact checking in their rush to link the Tampa investigation to Operation Fast and Furious, the failed ATF initiative in which agents knowingly allowed firearms to be trafficked across the border into Mexico.

In one typical example, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs branded Operation Castaway “a second version of the botched operation Fast and Furious” during his July 11 broadcast.

“Instead of walking the guns into Mexico, this new operation allegedly walked illegal firearms from the Tampa ATF field division into Honduras before the weapons were used in violent crimes in that region,” Dobbs said. “Specifically, some 1,000 guns are believed to have gone to members of the ruthless MS-13 gang, an international crime syndicate.”

The ATF denies that agents knowingly allowed firearms to be smuggled to Honduras or any other country as part of Operation Castaway, telling Media Matters:

ATF agents were careful to ensure that no illegal weapons left the US, as evidenced by the interdiction and seizure for evidence of a large box containing handguns and other firearms that Operation Castaway defendants attempted to mail by air freight to Honduras in the final days of the Castaway investigation.

There is no evidence in the court files to support Dobbs claims and he offered no original reporting to back them up. Instead, he relied on references to “new reports” and “allegations” without revealing their dubious origin--anonymously sourced blog items on conspiratorial websites.

The first of these posts appeared July 6. It was headlined “Breaking News: Source claims ATF's Tampa SAC walked guns to HONDURAS! Part of Operation Castaway?” [SAC is an acronym for Special Agent in Charge.] Citing “private correspondence from a proven credible source,” the blog item reported that Tampa ATF deliberately facilitated the smuggling of firearms to Honduras “using the techniques and tactics identical to Fast and Furious.”

The July 6 blog item was republished with no additional reporting by dozens of pro-militia and other right-wing websites. It jumped to Fox News in the July 8 broadcast of Special Report with Bret Baier, which featured an interview with “online journalist” Mike Vanderboegh, one of the bloggers who posted the original item. Vanderboegh was a leading figure in the 1990s militia movement who more recently led the Alabama Minuteman Support Team, a border vigilante group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Vanderboegh was also one of the first to report on the failed Fast and Furious investigation.

“Mike Vanderboegh communicates with a host of ATF agents daily on his web site,” said Fox News reporter William La Jeunesse. “Agents told him Wednesday Operation Castaway out of the Tampa office, also knowingly sold guns to criminals, in this case, 1,000 to buyers for the violent drug gang, MS-13. Those guns to Honduras.”

La Jeunesse gave no indication that he'd made any attempt to confirm Vanderboegh's story. He simply gave the blogger a national platform.

Later in the same program Baier reported, “We also know that there's another effort by ATF that we're just learning about to get guns from Tampa to Honduras, violent gangs called MS-13 down there.”

The origin of the MS-13 detail is murky; Vanderboegh made no reference to the notorious criminal syndicate in his original post. “At this time ATF has had no indication that MS-13 gang members were customers or co-conspirators of Mr. Crumpler,” said an ATF spokesperson. “However, the arrests of Mr. Crumpler and the other defendants by ATF stopped their illegal flow of firearms into the criminal market.”

On July 10 Fox News' America's Newsroom re-aired La Jeunesse's report. [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 7/10/11, via] Dobbs followed with his Fox Business report July 11. Then on July 12, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) got in on the action. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and ATF acting director Ken Melson, Bilirakis wrote: “In recent days, it has come to light that the ATF and DOJ may have participated in the act of 'gun walking' beyond the acts conducted within the scope of 'Operation Fast and Furious.' Recent reports have suggested that [Fast and Furious] may not have been limited to weapons trafficking to Mexico and that similar programs included the possible trafficking of arms to dangerous criminal gangs in Honduras with the knowledge of the ATF's Tampa Field Division and the Department of Justice's Middle District of Florida through an operation known as 'Operation Castaway.'”

The Bilirakis letter prompted a second flurry of Fox News coverage.

Here's Fox Business host Eric Bolling on July 13: “Florida Congressman Gus Bilirakis has written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding to know about reports that the ATF was involved in similar operations including trafficking arms and dangerous street gangs in Honduras.

”Is this the final straw? How much did Attorney General Eric Holder know and will he be forced to step down?" [Fox Business, Follow The Money, 7/13/11, via Nexis]

On July 15, Fox aired two more Operation Castaway reports. On July 18, Bilikrais was interviewed on Fox & Friends:

BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Instead of putting guns in the hands of Mexican drug dealers, did we give guns to Honduran thugs? Is this a joke?

Joining us right now is Florida Congressman Gus Bilirakis.

Congressman, what can you tell us about Castaway?


KILMEADE: And how it might or might not be related to “Fast and Furious”?

BILIRAKIS: Well, it could be related and guns were put into hands -- in the hands of criminals. Over 1,000 guns approximately. So we need to know if it's related and the “Fast and Furious” is also obviously a flawed program and it could happen right here in Tampa.

And I'm going to find out. So we've written letters to Holder and Melson as well and we need to know. They've contacted us on Friday and told us that they're getting our answers -- getting the answers as quickly as possible.

Well, I want to know. I know Darrell Issa who's chairman of the Oversight Committee is going to investigate this. We're not going to let up. It's very serious.


MOLLY LINE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: What gives you cause to believe that it might be similar to the “Fast and Furious” program?

BILIRAKIS: Well, we've gotten reports and also my staff has looked into it. So it's very possible that it could be gun walking and that's unacceptable. Again, a flawed program, very serious, very negligent and it's got to stop. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 7/18/11, via Nexis]

Media Matters repeatedly called and emailed Rep. Bilirakis seeking to clarify what “reports” he was referencing, how exactly it “came to light” that ATF may have walked guns to Honduras, or whether he or anyone on his staff had even read the Operation Castaway case files. Messages were not returned.

Rep. Bilirakis isn't the only Congressman hyping the Operation Castaway allegations. During a high profile July 26 House Oversight Committee hearing on Fast and Furious, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) said that Castaway was comparable to Fast and Furious.

Media Matters caught up with Farenthold after the hearing and asked him if he had reviewed any of the public documents on Operation Castaway. Farenthold responded that he had only seen media reporting on the issue:

Those files, available to anyone who wanted to look, show an investigation that began when Crumpler triggered suspicion in the summer of 2009 with repeated bulk purchases of handguns, which are required to be reported, and ended with his conviction and that of other major arms smugglers.

Media Matters also contacted Mike Vanderboegh outside the hearing and asked him about Operation Castaway. After some initial name calling on his side, he repeatedly stressed that he'd never definitively claimed the ATF walked guns to Honduras as part of Operation Castaway, he'd only raised the question of whether it had. In other words, he left himself wiggle room.

For example, one of Vanderboegh's blog posts was titled "Why would ATF walk guns to Honduras?" The original July 6th blog post carried as part of the headline "Part of Operation Castaway?" It read:

Whether the allegations of our source refer to the ongoing Operation Castaway remains at this hour unclear, but our source is certain that [Tampa SAC] O'Brien has allowed the “walking” of straw-purchased firearms to Honduras using the same failed strategy as the Phoenix Field Division's Operation Fast and Furious. That Operation Castaway involved arms smuggling to Honduras is also certain.

When pressed about his Operation Castaway reporting Vanderboegh told Media Matters, “I wrote 'Castaway' with a question mark, you jerk.”

Fox News stripped off the question mark and ran the story. This adds to the network's long history of uncritically amplifying conspiracy mongering and unsubstantiated claims, especially if they are aimed at the Obama administration.

As a result, it took only 48 hours for the Castaway allegations to make their way from anonymously sourced blog items to the Fox News echo chamber. Two weeks later, they're being touted in the halls of Congress.