Political gamesmanship in the Senate is continuing to leave the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) leaderless. It’s been seven years since the ATF had a permanent director. B. Todd Jones, President Obama’s nominee for the job, is currently the acting director.
ATF is part of the Department of Justice. In one form or another, the agency has been involved in American law enforcement since the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when George Washington led more than 10,000 militiamen to Pennsylvania to enforce the whiskey tax. Abraham Lincoln appointed Treasury Agents to enforce similar laws, and Elliot Ness of “The Untouchables” fame was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition, which was in both the Treasury Department and the Justice Department at various times. After the repeal of Prohibition, the bureau was renamed the Alcohol Tax Unit. As various crime-battling and gang-busting duties were assigned, its name was changed along the way.
The ATF’s history is important to understand because the bureau plays a critical role in American law enforcement to this day. The police memorial in Washington is filled with the names of Special Agents who gave their lives in service. Day to day, ATF Special Agents investigate and apprehend some of the country’s most violent criminals including gun traffickers, bombers, and arsonists. The agency also regulates the firearms and explosives industries–key to keeping America safe. Special Agents have been at work from West, Texas, to Boston. Right now, I have no doubt, ATF Special Agents are working undercover to track stolen guns, machine gun silencers, hand grenades, and bombs. They are serving search and arrest warrants and testifying in Federal Courts; their laboratories are examining forensic evidence.
Leaders set the course, direction and speed of the mission. They fight for the things the organization needs to protect the public.
They set the broad policies, and map the future so we are all safer. Special Agents, Investigators, forensic chemists and all personnel need to have the president, the attorney general, and the Congress behind them. Leaders matter and when the mission involves life-and-death they matter even more.
So why after seven years can’t the ATF get a director selected by the president and confirmed by the Senate? Politics is the answer, of course: the powerful gun lobby has made its displeasure known on any candidate put forward. The gun lobby seems to fear the stability that comes with a permanent director. The absence of strong leadership makes it easier to keep the ATF off its footing.
There is no such thing as a perfect leader–not Winston Churchill, not General Patton. All active leaders live through failures; that is where they gain experience and wisdom. If we are searching for perfect ones, they don’t exist. Senators have argued against the current nominee, Acting Director Jones, who also serves as the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis. Senators have found reasons to object to previous nominees as well–for seven years. The failure here is not the fault of the nominees but of the Bush and Obama administrations, the Justice department and the Senate.
President Obama should ask Sens. Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, and Chuck Schumer, and Attorney General Eric Holder to come to the White House, sit down and work it out. Have a vote on nominee Jones. If he’s confirmed, we can move on. If he isn’t, then a new nominee should be selected and a vote taken in the swiftest possible manner. This problem is not insurmountable. It’s very fixable–but leaders have to be willing to fix it.
Even if every objection to every nominee has been valid, leaving the ATF without a confirmed leader for seven years is unacceptable. The men and women of the ATF deserve better, and the American people deserve better.