The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been without a permanent director for seven years. Apparently Republicans don't mind if that continues.
GOP Senators have accused the Democratic majority of “procedural defects” in Tuesday’s hearing with President Obama’s nominee to permanently lead the ATF.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, said the Democratic majority should not even have scheduled the hearing, as the nominee, ATF Acting Director B. Todd Jones, remains under federal investigation. Jones stands accused of “gross mismanagement” and “abuse of authority” including allegedly retaliating against a whistleblower, said Sen. Grassley.
The ATF is the agency tasked with enforcing the nation’s federal gun and explosives laws. Despite incidents like this past winter’s Newtown massacre and this spring’s Boston Marathon bombing, the ATF has remained leaderless. It’s the longest the ATF has ever been without a permanent director, and the seven-year-stretch appears to be the longest that any federal agency has been rudderless.
“This [delay is] a direct result of the gun lobby not wanting any type of competent federal enforcement,” Joseph J. Vince, Jr. a former ATF special agent, told msnbc.com.
“Senators who took dictation from the gun lobby during the legislative debate lost a good chunk of their support at home,” Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told msnbc.com. “People expect a serious debate, because tomorrow, 33 more Americans will be murdered with guns.”
National Rifle Association officials at the group’s Fairfax, Virginia, headquarters declined to respond to requests for comment.
In January, President Obama nominated B. Todd Jones, a former U.S. Marine who served in Desert Storm and the current U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, to lead the ATF. Since 2011 Jones has been the ATF’s acting director, albeit only part-time, as he continues to serve as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota.
“Why are we even here today?” asked Sen. Grassley, noting that Jones is under investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel over complaints involving employees in the U.S. Attorney Office in Minnesota. “Proceeding today is premature,” added Grassley, saying that the hearing should be postponed until the investigation and complaints against the nominee are resolved.
“It's unfair to the nominee,” said Sen. Grassley.
The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chose Minnesota’s ranking Democrat on the judiciary committee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to preside over the hearing. She noted that Sen. Leahy originally chose to postpone the hearing while the investigation was ongoing, but that he later decided to schedule the hearing once some of the allegations against Jones were leaked to the press.
Sen. Chuck Grassley has previously accused Jones of having unspecified “ties to the Fast and Furious scandal” where ATF agents, who said they tracking arms flows, allowed gun transfers to Mexico. Sen. Klobuchar said that ATF Acting Director Jones has helped clean up the ATF since the scandal. Jones told Senators that all senior ATF personnel involved in Operation Fast and Furious have either resigned or been removed from positions of authority, and that some of the personnel have been disciplined.
Both he and Sen. Klobuchar said that the ATF’s lack of leadership contributed to the scandal. The ATF’s last permanent director was Carl J. Truscott, who was confirmed by the Senate in 2004. Back then, during the Bush administration, Republicans stressed the importance of having strong leadership at the ATF.
“Carl brings strong leadership and immense law enforcement expertise to the Bureau as they work to combat crime and protect the public,” said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft when he announced Truscott’s appointment in 2004.
“Under Mr. Truscott’s leadership, the bureau reduced violent crime to an historic 30-year low, expanded its role in explosives investigations, developed a National Center for Explosives Training and Research and constructed a new training academy,” reads Truscott’s biography on the website of ASERO Worldwide, where he is CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.
Reached for comment by telephone, Truscott told msnbc.com: “I really don’t want to step into the middle of this discussion.”
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush administration led the ATF along with other federal agencies to support counter-terrorism activities. “Most importantly, the 5,000 men and women of ATF were able to make effective contributions to the Department of Justice’s highest priority--the prevention of terrorism,” continues the Truscott's online, corporate biography.
Some law enforcement professionals say the goal of undermining the ATF when comes to firearms investigations goes back decades. Unlike most other federal agencies, which have expanded over time, the ATF has remained stagnant.
“The ATF has not increased since ’77,” Vince told msnbc.com. There were about 2,200 ATF special agents then, and there are up to 2,400 special agents now.
As it happens, 1977 was the year that hardline gun rights advocates took over the NRA, in what is still known in NRA lore as the “Cincinnati Revolt,” transforming it from a rifle club into the gun lobby.