Critical ATF gets too little respect from Congress

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 16, 2013

This time it’s Boston.

As they did with bombings in New York City and Oklahoma City, and many lesser-known crimes every day in cities all over the country, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, better known as ATF, rushed to the scene. Their specialized expertise and training will be critical in catching the Boston Marathon bomber.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

But while the nation relies on ATF to help nab such culprits, it is an agency often overlooked by those outside of law enforcement and one that gets little of the respect it deserves from official Washington.

Despite their agency being treated like an unwelcome guest in some quarters, ATF agents respond to emergencies with the urgency and professionalism that makes them highly respected among their law-enforcement colleagues.

“They are very good,” said Craig T. Steckler, chief of the Fremont Police Department in California and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. History lesson: Eliot Ness was an officer with ATF’s legacy agencies.

In Congress, however, the agency is underappreciated.

A distressing example of that is the inability or unwillingness of the Senate for more than six years to confirm an ATF director.

The position required Senate confirmation beginning in 2006. There have been acting directors since then, but no one has been confirmed. Leaving an agency in the hands of an acting director sends a signal that the agency really doesn’t rate.

No matter how good the acting director may be, “it is difficult for the agents to not have centralized leadership,” said Nate Catura, executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA).

Catura praises B. Todd Jones, who has been acting director since September 2011, while continuing to serve as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota. How effective can one person be doing two high-pressure jobs simultaneously?

“He’s a good man. He’s trying to do the right thing,” Catura said. “But it’s tough. . . . He can only go so far.

“Congress must act” and “it has to be done soon,” Catura added.

President Obama has urged Congress to confirm Jones, but Republicans have raised objections. The National Rifle Association has targeted ATF. The NRA, which did not comment for this column, has worked to hamper ATF enforcement of federal gun laws by fighting a computerized registry of gun ownership. That forces ATF to trace guns using a labor-intensive, time-consuming process.

“Congress needs to help, rather than hinder, law enforcement as it does its job,” Obama said in January. “Since Congress hasn’t confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in six years, they should confirm Todd Jones.”

Having no permanent director, Catura said, “hurts morale.”

Added Francis Neeley, FLEOA’s ATF agency president: “We are not wanting to be in a political game.”

The agency’s morale problems are detailed in the latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, published by the Partnership for Public Service. ATF ranks 203 out of 292 agencies in its category.

On questions related to leadership, ATF finishes even lower, with an “effective leadership” — 277 out of 290.

“It’s corrosive,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive. (The partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

Relying on acting directors means “you have leaders who are frequently hamstrung . . . and whose authority is circumscribed,” he said.

Acting directors seeking confirmation will be careful, perhaps too careful, because they don’t want to upset senators, Stier says, and caretaker directors “feel they don’t have the authority to take on the most challenging problems.”

Perhaps that explains why the agency’s office of public and governmental affairs referred even basic questions for this column to the Justice Department. The positions of chief and deputy chief in ATF’s public affairs division are filled by staffers in acting roles.

On top of that, morale can’t be helped with ATF employees — like many other feds — facing days of unpaid leave because of budget cuts and staffing levels that agents say are too low.

“ATF should be twice the size it is,” Neeley said.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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