The national debate over gun control has died down, but there were moments of high tension Tuesday as the Senate began considering the appointment of a director to the federal agency that regulates firearms and investigates gun and explosives crimes.
The Judiciary Committee finally held a confirmation hearing for B. Todd Jones, the part-time acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who also serves as the U.S. attorney for Minnesota. ATF has not had a full-time director in seven years; President Obama nominated Jones to head the agency five months ago as part of his guns initiative after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The confirmation hearing came the same week that gun-control advocates, including parents of children killed in Newtown, are pushing lawmakers to reconsider Obama’s stalled legislative package, particularly the bill expanding background checks for firearm purchases. Senate Democratic aides said there are no imminent plans to revive the bill or other elements.
Prospects for Jones also appeared dim as the crowded hearing got off to a fiery start.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the committee’s ranking Republican, criticized Jones on several fronts, including over an inquiry into a controversial civil case involving the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota, a harsh letter about Jones’s leadership from a former FBI official in the state, and allegations by a whistleblower assistant U.S. attorney that Jones took actions against him.
“Why are we even here today?” Grassley asked rhetorically. “There are allegations of gross mismanagement and abuse of authority in Mr. Jones’s office, and there is a complaint that Mr. Jones retaliated against a whistleblower.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) defended Todd’s tenure in Minnesota and as acting ATF director, citing letters of support from police chiefs and other law enforcement officials across the country.
“Something is wrong when the Senate fails to confirm the head of an agency for seven years,” Klobuchar said. “Something is wrong when we have ATF agents, over 2,000 of them, on the front lines of major investigations like the Boston Marathon bombing. While victims lay dismembered in the hospital, the agents were on the front line figuring out who did it and what happened. And yet the Senate still will not confirm a permanent leader of this agency.”
Law was changed in 2006 to require the head of ATF to be confirmed by the Senate. Attempts to win approval for other nominees have failed, and Jones appears headed for a wait, too.
The ghost of Operation “Fast and Furious,” the botched effort to track guns from U.S. deals to Mexican drug traffickers, hung over the hearing. Jones was not at ATF during Fast and Furious; he was brought in 15 months ago as acting director to help reform the embattled agency. But there was no escaping the lingering controversy.
“Was anyone disciplined?” asked Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), pressing Jones to name ATF officials who were demoted or terminated after a report this fall by the Justice Department’s inspector general that said federal agents ignored risks in the gun-tracking operation.
Jones, who said ATF “was very much in distress” when he arrived, told Flake that several employees have been disciplined. He said privacy rules prohibit him from providing details, but he acknowledged that William McMahon, the deputy assistant ATF director who oversaw the Western region during the operation, had been “terminated.”
Democrats rose to Jones’s defense. “You’ve had a long, distinguished career,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). “You were passed unanimously for U.S. attorney by this committee a few years ago. And now, it’s taken a long time to get your nomination approved by this committee and by the Senate.”
For his part, Jones, a former Marine, maintained his composure and even his humor.
At one point, he mistakenly called Grassley “your honor.”
“This is like a courtroom,” Jones said, smiling. “I feel like a defendant.”
“As a farmer, I feel honored,” Grassley replied.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.