Stories I’d like to see

A new narrative for Fast and Furious, ICANN’s domain name jackpot

In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. Fast and Furious - zeroing in on Fortune’s different take:

Last week Fortune magazine published this surprising story that convincingly debunks the premise of the so-called Fast and Furious “gun walking” scandal that has enveloped the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Attorney General Eric Holder. Last week the controversy resulted in a contempt of Congress citation against Holder for not turning over documents about the case to a congressional committee chaired by Darrell Issa, the California Republican.

According to a ton of reporting done by Fortune’s Katherine Eban, including on-the-record interviews with many of the ATF agents involved and what Fortune says were more than 2,000 pages of explosive internal government emails and other documents, ATF agents did not deliberately allow American gun buyers working for Mexican drug cartels to “walk” assault rifles across the border to the drug gangs. Rather, the agents were carefully tracking the gun buyers and wanted to intercept and arrest them. They were stopped because prosecutors said that loopholes in gun record-keeping laws—loopholes that have long been protected by the gun rights advocates who are now leading the attack against ATF and Holder—and other constraints on ATF pushed by the gun lobby were such that prosecutors said the agents did not have enough probable cause to make the arrests.

In fact, according to Eban’s reporting, the one ATF agent who has been the key whistleblower and protagonist for Representative Issa’s charges that ATF deliberately let the drug cartels get the guns turns out to be the only agent who actually suggested that ATF do so in a separate case.

Of course, last week was buried in coverage of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, but it’s still surprising that the Fortune story has not received the broad follow-up it deserves.

First, if true, it makes Issa’s attack on ATF and Holder one big “never mind.”

Second, if true, it makes Holder’s concession months ago that ATF did, in fact, intentionally allow Fast and Furious guns into the hands of the cartels either amazingly uninformed or an equally amazing knee buckling and sell-out of his agency in a fruitless effort to avoid a fight with Issa and his Republican allies. Fortune’s Eban explains it this way: The Obama administration “capitulated in an apparent effort to avoid a rhetorical battle over gun control in the run-up to the presidential election.” Her article also raises questions about why Democrats on Issa’s committee, who have opposed his tactics and his contempt motion, didn’t fight back using the same emails that Eban uncovered. (Despite the contempt citation against Holder for withholding some documents, the committee has already received thousands of other documents.)

The Fortune article is also a strong indictment of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which made a hero out of the ATF agent whom Fortune portrays as a rogue while making villains out of Fortune’s good-guy agents.

Someone needs to wade through all of this. And until that happens, for my money the Fortune piece is credible enough that the rest of the press needs, despite Holder’s own hapless admission, to stop referring to the charge of Fast and Furious gun walking and the deliberate planting of guns with Mexican drug gangsters as a fact.

2. ICANN’s $350 million bonanza:

Since its formation in 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, has been the U.S. government’s way of outsourcing to the private sector basic Internet housekeeping questions, such as who gets what domain names and addresses. With a multinational board made up of Internet visionaries (or busybodies, depending on your point of view), ICANN has suffered its share of controversy but has generally been regarded in the press as better than the alternative of having a government bureaucracy—either ours or one set up by the United Nations—play Internet hall monitor.

Well, that may be changing. Earlier this year, ICANN announced that it would accept applications for thousands of new top-level domain names to add to the few, like “.com” or “.org,” that we’re all familiar with. Last month, ICANN released the list of applicants for names such as “.apps,” “.blog,” “.music,” and “.books.” As this report from NPR explains, the organization received 1,930 such applications for which it charged $185,000 each. Thus, it’s no surprise that big corporations like Google, with 101 applications, and Amazon, with 76, dominated the process.

At $185,000 each, 1,930 applications adds up to $357 million. That’s a lot of money for a non-profit to be raking in. In fact, this bonanza looks more like a Pentagon earmark than a can-do, high-tech, do-good venture.

Who are the people behind ICANN? How do they spend these and other funds that they get for being the designated monopoly player controlling the Internet?

Curiously, the otherwise comprehensive NPR report, after citing critics who fear possible abuses of the new domain naming system, says only that “ICANN insists that won’t happen.” But NPR names no one at ICANN, let alone quotes anyone by name.

The list of ICANN’s board and its executives is public on its website, and Internet trade blogs have provided a lot of coverage of ICANN and the proposed expansion of the top-level domain names. Some of it even spilled into the general press last week—such as this Associated Press report about a fiasco surrounding how the $185,000 domain name applications would be reviewed. It seems that to determine the order in which the applications would be considered, the clever folks at ICANN devised what to this reader was an incomprehensible contest called “digital archery.” However, the whole thing crashed, and the contest was canceled because of technical glitches that the spinners at ICANN called “unexpected results.” They offered no further elaboration.

Who knows - maybe a look at how ICANN works and what it’s doing with that $357 million would make our Washington bureaucracies look good.

3. The DC power outage—how utilities skimp on maintenance crews:

In the wake of the prolonged power outages following last week’s severe thunderstorms in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, I hope someone will revisit this story idea from last November about local utilities paring down their own maintenance crews and making deals with other utilities to share crews from across North America when there’s an emergency. Yesterday morning I heard the CEO of PEPCO, the DC-area electric company, casually explain the delays in an interview on CNN by saying that full power restoration awaited the arrival of borrowed crews from as far away as Canada. It was as if no longer having enough local workers on hand was as much an act of God as the storms.

Editor’s note: The April 3 installment of this column called for a story exploring “How did Research In Motion, which produces the BlackBerry, get away with a lagging product offering and obviously unworkable corporate governance for so long?” On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published a story addressing those very questions in detail.

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. Tags: