Get rid of the ATF? Why one Congressman wants it gone

Tuesday - 7/15/2014, 12:25pm EDT

Jon Adler on In Depth with Francis Rose

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By Ellen Kortesoja
Federal News Radio

A top House overseer of federal law enforcement thinks that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) should be dissolved.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), member of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of the Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, is putting together a bill that would give the majority of ATF's duties to other agencies within the Justice Department.

"By absorbing the ATF into existing law enforcement entities, we can preserve the areas where the ATF adds value for substantially less taxpayer money," Sensenbrenner said in a statement in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

He says the agency has been plagued by a number of high-profile blunders — notably, the botched Fast and Furious operation that left a U.S. border agent dead in 2010 — which is part of why he believes the move to consolidate will increase government efficiency.

The idea to dissolve the ATF is not only coming from conservatives either.

The Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think-tank, made recommendations in 2012 that the ATF should be absorbed by the FBI so as to streamline federal firearm enforcement.

The report states, "the United States already has a well-functioning federal law enforcement agency: the FBI." A consolidation would "allow ATF to focus on its other duties with its limited resources."

Arkadi Gerney, an author of the report and a CAP expert in gun policy, told Federal News Radio that the ATF has made progress in past years under new leadership, but it might not be enough.

"Director [Todd] Jones has done a really excellent job of leading the agency in the last year since his confirmation. But I think some of the challenges that the agency faces, which have been longstanding and go back for years, are pretty significant," Gerney says.

Jon Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, told Federal News Radio's In Depth radio show that Rep. Sensenbrenner's proposal is "an incredible over-simplification."

Because "one-third of the ATF workforce is eligible for retirement," Adler said he believes ATF employees would retire rather than go through the training and assimilation into new FBI offices, if the ATF were to be dissolved.

He thinks the proposal makes other oversights as well.

"There are a lot of expenses that Congressman Sensesnbrenner did not identify," Adler says.

Adler thinks ATF's expertise in gun trafficking, bomb and arson investigations, and violent crime is irreplaceable. He says that getting swallowed up by a larger mission will diminish that expertise.

"If you move them into a larger agency, let's just say the FBI who's primary responsibility is terrorism, the ATF mission — not that it will be minimized or become lost — It just can't sustain the same emphasis ... That's bureaucracy 101," Adler said.

Adler says the ATF's mission to protect the public's safety is too important to take the chance of mission de-emphasis.

CAP's Gerney agrees that the proposed transition would not be easy.

"There are a lot of ATF agents who are slotted for retirement," Gerney said. "Then the question becomes, what's the best strategy to make the agents who remain and the new agents as effective as possible?"

He said the way forward is to carefully review all strategies, and to only take action once it's certain that the ATF "could be absorbed into [the] FBI and could actually enhance the capabilities of the agents and the mission that they're undertaking."

Government's watchdog has ATF recommendations

Rep. Sensenbrenner's proposal comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office report concluding the ATF lacks the resources to perform its duties to the best of its ability.

The report outlined ATF's trajectory—how it became more centrally focused on violent crime investigations and firearm investigations, while decreasing emphasis on alcohol and tobacco investigations.

GAO found that ATF is unable to properly carry out one of its main missions. It writes that the ATF does not have enough readily available data to "track and monitor the timeliness and outcomes" of investigations when someone improperly purchases a firearm, and when a background check does not initially indicate that the person is ineligible — what's called "delayed denial investigations."

GAO also found that ATF is suffering a staff shortage. The bureau has the lowest number of special agents in eight years.

ATF management officials said they've been unable to keep pace with hiring because the agency's budget has not reflected the rise in employee salaries and benefits.

The watchdog agency recommended ATF "establish a mechanism to provide headquarters managers readily available data to better monitor the timeliness and outcomes of delayed denial investigations."

The report does not make any recommendations specifying absorption into the FBI.

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