"We do not target the developmentally disabled or mentally challenged individuals. We target criminals," B. Todd Jones, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The main focus of Wednesday's hearing was last year's botched "storefront" operation in Milwaukee, where ATF agents allowed convicted felons to leave the store armed; where three weapons, including an automatic weapon, were stolen from an ATF vehicle; and where $39,000 worth of merchandise was stolen from the storefront because ATF agents didn't install an alarm.
An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel also found that ATF agents involved in undercover operations in Milwaukee and and other cities across the country "befriended mentally disabled people to drum up business and later arrested them."
The paper said ATF agents in Wichita "referred to a man with a low IQ as 'slow-headed' before deciding to secretly use him as a key cog in their sting. And agents in Albuquerque, N.M., gave a brain-damaged drug addict with little knowledge of weapons a 'tutorial' on machine guns, hoping he could find them one."
Agents in Milwaukee hired a "brain-damaged man, who had an IQ of 54, to set up gun and drug deals. And they convinced a young man in Portland, Oregon to get a tattoo of the store's logo, which they paid for -- and later paid to have removed.
Jones admitted that the tattoo "was a mistake."
He also said ATF special agents had "no awareness" at the time that they were dealing with mentally and developmentally disabled individuals. It it was only when these individuals went to trial that claims of disability arose, he said.
"It is a huge challenge for individuals who are in a law enforcement capacity to make determinations about someone's mental illness or mental capacity," he told the committee's ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she was "deeply, deeply concerned" about the ATF's use of people with intellectual developmental disabilities.
Jones told her there's not enough training, partly because of budget constraints: "It's a very difficult challenge, because oftentimes you can't tell on the surface as to whether or not somebody's got issues of that type."
"If your IQ's in the mid-50s, it is very clear that you are developmentally disabled," Duckworth replied.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) asked Jones if ATF regrets using low-IQ individuals -- and if the agency has apologized to any of them.
"There's opportunities for us to do better in terms of situational awareness, training, and making sure that we do it right," Jones said. As for apologies, he indicated that ATF has had "some interaction" with the tattooed individual, but others are now in prison.
Addressing the storefront stings, Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the ATF assured him in April 2013 that the botched operation in Milwaukee was an isolated incident. But in December 2013, the committee learned that similar ATF operations were conducted across the country, from Portland to Albuquerque to Wichita to Atlanta to Pensacola.
"These other storefront operations followed an incredibly reckless pattern," Issa said, noting that agents let felons leave the stores with weapons; exploited handicapped people; and failed to take precautions to protect stores from theft.
"ATF's dangerous tactics may actually be increasing crime in your neighborhood," Issa said.
The Justice Department's inspector general is now investigating details of those storefront operations. The ATF is part of the Justice Department, which enforces the Americans With Disabilities Act.