Spotlight: ATF

ATF SealAfter a cliffhanger Senate vote on July 31, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has its first permanent director in 7 years. B. Todd Jones, acting director since 2011, now officially heads a law enforcement organization with a mission “to protect communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.” A relatively small agency within the Justice Department, with a FY2012 budget of $1.152 billion, the ATF has about 4,800 employees not including the highly-trained, 4-footed members of its canine explosive detection units. Its bomb-proof, LEED-Silver headquarters covers 5 acres and 422,000 square feet on New York Avenue in Northeast D.C., and other ATF facilities include 25 field offices, forensic laboratories in Maryland, Georgia, and California, and the National Center for Explosives Training and Research in Front Royal, Virginia.

The bureau’s storied history can be traced back to the 1886 formation of the Revenue Laboratory, within the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue. During prohibition, revenuers from the ATF’s legacy agencies hunted down bootleggers smuggling alcohol into the U.S. from Canada and Europe. Special Agent Eliot Ness and his team of “Untouchables” crippled Chicago’s organized crime syndicate, ultimately leading to Al Capone’s indictment for 5,000 prohibition violations and 22 counts of tax evasion. The ATF’s forerunners shuttled back and forth between the Treasury and Justice departments before and after the repeal of the Volstead Act ended prohibition. By 1942, the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) of the Treasury had the added responsibility of federal firearms enforcement, and, in the early 1950s, the ATU began enforcing federal tobacco laws as well. In 1968, the organization first became known as the ATF, acronym for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division of the IRS, and, in 1972, the ATF became the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms with a primary mission of preventing violent crime through enforcement of federal firearms and explosives laws. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 shifted the ATF again to the Department of Justice and changed its official name to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Patriot Act also impacted the ATF when Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) inserted a requirement for Senate confirmation of the ATF director in the 2006 reauthorization bill. Bitter fights over gun control have been blamed for delays in appointing a permanent director ever since. Previous acting directors appointed by presidents Bush and Obama were not granted Senate hearings, and Todd Jones, the top federal prosecutor in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was called to fill in after the Operation Fast and Furious gun trafficking scandal forced the previous acting director to resign. In remarks at his swearing-in ceremony, Jones acknowledged the troubled state of the agency on his arrival in 2011. He said, “This ship had run aground and was taking on water.” Jones is credited with stabilizing the bureau and ably managing ATF responses to mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, and the Boston Marathon bombing. When the National Rifle Association decided not to take a position on Jones, bipartisan support became possible, and Jones was confirmed by a vote of 53 to 42.

In FY2012, then-acting director Jones led an organization that seized $6.4 million in criminal contraband, initiated criminal investigations in 23,199 firearms cases and conducted compliance inspections 5,390 federal explosives licensees. Director Jones is expected to continue pursuing violent crime prevention and other agency goals outlined in the ATF Strategic Plan for 2010-2016, with a particular focus on explosives detection in the wake of the catastrophic West Texas, fertilizer plant explosion last April.

The director’s top priority in the coming months, however, may be organizational management. At his swearing-in, Jones praised his colleagues for their dedicated efforts but also called for additional training in “the fundamentals” and improved collaboration with local, state and federal partners. In an era of budget squeezes and sequesters, Jones expressed particular concern about the risks of attrition leading to the loss of years of knowledge and experience. Said Jones, “Our ability to contribute to enhancing public safety in communities across the country depends on our ability to ‘get healthy’ as an organization.”