For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, nothing seems to come easy.
The agency runs at a fraction of the size of its much larger law enforcement counterparts. Under pressure from gun rights groups, it operated without a Senate-confirmed leader for seven years. And its new leader, B. Todd Jones, only narrowly averted a congressional roadblock to win confirmation this summer after serving more than two years as an interim leader.
In an interview in his office at the ATF’s fortress-like headquarters this week, Jones proudly shared a business card – pointing out with a smile that the word “director” now stands alone.
For better or worse, the longtime federal prosecutor from Minnesota now owns the ATF. And he’s been trying to put the agency back on solid footing after years of controversy and criticism.
“There’s a sort of collective sigh of relief, that not another person’s going to show up here for a bit,” Jones says. “You know, they had five acting directors in the seven-year span since they made it subject to Senate confirmation, which is difficult for any organization to build momentum or have continuity.”
Jones first arrived at the ATF in 2011 at the behest of the White House, to run an agency under siege in a scandal known as Fast and Furious. Agents along the Southwest border lost track of about 2,000 guns in a misguided effort to build a bigger case against violent Mexican drug cartels. Some of those weapons turned up at crime scenes, including the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
By all accounts since then, Jones has cleaned house at the ATF. He replaced virtually all of the top managers at headquarters and put nearly two dozen new agents in charge of field offices around the country. Over the next five years, some of the ATF’s most experienced agents — about 40 percent of the workforce — will be retiring. So the time to focus on the future and groom young talent, Jones says, is now.
“Now we’re onto ok, ‘what is this new crew going to do to not only make sure the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated but also to make sure that ATF’s value to federal law enforcement and to public safety is enhanced,’” Jones says.
The challenge for Jones is even harder because of the politics of gun control. Earlier this year, White House proposals to impose background checks on private sales at gun shows and flea markets got shot down in Congress.
Jones says making legislative recommendations is not his job. Still, he closely followed the debate on Capitol Hill.
“And to be candid with you it would have been nice to have some greater protections on backgrounds and requiring some closing of the holes that we have in the current statutory scheme,” he says. “Just like it would have been nice to have a federal firearms trafficking statute. But we’re moving forward with the current set of rules and laws that we have.”
That means, he says, using data to figure out where to direct limited resources to find the worst offenders on the streets and try to put them behind bars. Already in charge of investigating explosions and arson, the ATF has been working to carve out a bigger role in violent crimes around the country, by taking down armed career criminals using federal laws that carry long prison sentences.
“We’ve done some very good gun trafficking investigations in Texas and Arizona and California,” Jones says. “We’ve done dozens of storefront operations that have taken crime guns and bad people off the streets.”
But those cases don’t get as much attention as the ATF’s missteps. The Justice Department Inspector General recently issued a report identifying a “serious lack of oversight” with some of the agency’s undercover operations designed to catch illicit cigarette trafficking. IG Michael Horowitz says the ATF lost track of millions of taxpayer dollars.
“We found significant issues with regard to how ATF was getting approval for its undercover churning operations, how it was maintaining controls over its payments to individuals who were assisting with those operations and how it was maintaining its records as to the cigarettes it was using in the undercover operations,” Horowitz tells NPR.
Todd Jones says that report is based on information that’s five years old. He says he’s already tightened the restrictions on undercover operations and the use of confidential informants to cut down on risk.
Overhauling the ATF is a tall order, IG Horowitz acknowledges, but it’s too soon to say whether changes that Jones has made after Fast and Furious will stick.
“We’re going to follow up and make sure the department is moving forward and … until we see whether or not they’ve actually implemented the recommendations we’ve made, we’ll withhold judgment about whether and how they’ve moved forward,” Horowitz says.
There’s another thing that doesn’t get enough attention amid all the scandals, Jones says. That’s how his agents risk their lives.
One of them, John Capano, raced into a pharmacy being robbed on Long Island by a convicted felon, only to pay with his life, in what Jones describes as a “turning point” three months into his tenure.
“I’ll never forget the call I got on New Year’s Eve 2011 telling me that a special agent had been killed in the line of duty in New York,” he says. “And the last time this organization had deaths in the line of duty was in 1993.”
Jones remembers that agent by keeping a sign in his office at headquarters. He says John Capano’s teenage son wants to become an ATF agent someday, just like his dad.