Page 3 of 5   <       >

ATF's oversight limited in face of gun lobby

The problem started soon after Attorney General John D. Ashcroft appointed Carl J. Truscott, a veteran Secret Service official, to head the bureau in 2004. After Truscott took the helm, Congress moved to make the ATF directorship comparable to that of the directors of the DEA and the FBI, who must be confirmed by the Senate. In an interview, Truscott said the move was also backed by the Justice Department and was possibly an effort to boost the prestige and clout of the position.

Truscott resigned in 2006, accused of taking expensive trips with ATF agents, including a $37,000 journey to London. He spent $140 million to build a 438,000-square-foot headquarters on New York Avenue and planned to install a $65,000 conference table.

Meanwhile, the change requiring Senate confirmation for an ATF chief allowed the gun lobby to have a say on Capitol Hill about the agency's leadership.

Next up for the ATF job was Michael J. Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney in Boston nominated by President George W. Bush. He was blocked by three senators who accused the ATF of being hostile to gun dealers: David Vitter (R-La.), Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho) and Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). Craig, who has left office, was a member of the NRA's board of directors throughout his tenure in the Senate.

They succeeded in keeping Sullivan in "acting" limbo until he resigned when Barack Obama took office.

As president, Obama has yet to nominate a new director. In April 2009, the job of acting director was given to Kenneth Melson, a former Virginia prosecutor and director of the Justice Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. But Melson was demoted to deputy director under the Vacancies Reform Act, which limits how long acting chiefs can run federal agencies. He still runs the agency, but the top job sits vacant.

In August, sources in the ATF said Andy Traver, a special agent in charge of the ATF in Chicago, was being considered for the job. Gun-lobby representatives immediately said they would oppose his nomination because they thought he was too close to gun-control activists.

Lack of resources

In 1972, when the ATF separated from the Internal Revenue Service and became its own bureau within the Treasury Department, it had about 2,500 agents. At the time, the FBI had 8,700, the DEA 1,500 and the U.S. Marshals 1,900.

Thirty-eight years later, the FBI is up to 13,000, the DEA has more than tripled to 5,000, and there are 3,300 federal marshals.

The ATF, now a part of the Justice Department, remains at 2,500.

"We were always given just enough food and water to survive," said Michael Bouchard, former ATF assistant director for field operations. "We could barely just keep going. The ATF could never get that strong, because the gun lobby would get too concerned."

The NRA said it has not lobbied against resources for the ATF.

<          3           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company