The federal law enforcement operation known as “Fast and Furious” was a debacle that almost assuredly cost the life of at least one American Border Patrol agent. Yet, unlike the standoff and assault nearly two decades ago on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas – a tragedy of epic proportions that claimed the lives of some six dozen civilians along with those of four federal agents – the officials responsible for conducting Fast and Furious actually are being held accountable.
Importantly, however, the systemic problems infecting the one agency deeply involved in both debacles – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, commonly known as “ATF” – continue to color its activities to this day. In fact, legislation passed in 2005 designed to make the agency more accountable, has never been fully implemented. To this day -- more than eight decades after it was created primarily to fight the menace posed to America by moonshiners and other scofflaws trying to avoid payment of federal taxes on cigarettes -- ATF remains the red-headed stepchild in the federal law enforcement family.
First the good news. As a direct result of an internal investigation of Fast and Furious conducted over the past year by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice (ATF’s parent bureaucracy), undertaken at the direction of Attorney General Eric Holder and released last week, two senior officials at the Justice Department and ATF resigned. The report identified several others for possible sanctions; and the officials in Arizona directly responsible for the botched operation, including the presidentially-appointed U.S. Attorney, had resigned earlier.
The fact that heads rolled as a result of the Inspector General’s report represents unusually clear action by the government to hold accountable individuals responsible for serious mistakes. Holder deserves credit for taking these steps, though he is unlikely to receive many kudos during a hotly contested national campaign. By comparison, not a single federal employee lost their job as a result of the Waco tragedy.
The Fast and Furious report also correctly identifies a number of policy and process miscues that characterized the operation, from its inception in the field to the failure to fully and timely apprise top Department officials of its results and problems.
Now the bad news. ATF remains leaderless and in disarray internally. Ultimately, blame for this continuing and serious problem rests with the two houses of Congress, and with the current President and his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush.
Until 2006, ATF was headed by a director appointed by the president, but not requiring confirmation by the Senate. This limited both the Bureau’s clout and its accountability. But at least the Bureau had directors who were officially in place and could set and carry out policies. In 2005, however, in response to pressure from the Republican majority in the House, and with the strong support of the NRA and outside firearms-rights organizations, a law was signed by President Bush making the ATF director subject to Senate confirmation. This move was designed to both boost the Bureau’s bureaucratic clout and, more important, ensure a greater degree of control and accountability by subjecting the director to the public and political process of Senate confirmation.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way. Since the confirmation law went into effect in 2006, not a single name has been submitted officially to the Senate by Presidents Bush or Obama for confirmation to head ATF. The Bureau, with more than 5,000 employees (nearly half of them Special Agents) and a budget of $1.152 billion, thus has been headed – not really led – by a succession of “Acting” directors; sometimes by men shuttling between another full-time job and the ATF gig.
An agency without a full-time, confirmed director at the helm is doomed in the bureaucratic-driven world of the federal government to remain an agency adrift and lacking the clout or direction to implement clear, long-term policies.
It is therefore not surprising that Fast and Furious, so poorly conceived and carried out, occurred in this environment. In fact, the question really was not if such a debacle would occur, but when.
And still, neither the Republicans in control of the House nor the Democrats similarly situated in the senior body are pressing Obama to nominate a permanent ATF director; just as neither did during the previous administration. And, neither the current nor the immediate past resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has cared enough to expend any political capital to secure confirmation of a permanent director.
Inside ATF, considering the two very different responsibilities within its jurisdiction -- Special Agents to enforce the nation’s criminal firearms laws, and civil Investigators to ensure compliance by firearms dealers with the myriad and confusing firearms regulations – the Bureau’s operations remain as schizophrenic as ever.
The Inspector General Report, and the resulting – and presumably continuing – disciplinary actions taken in response thereto, will dampen what little interest there might have been to get a real handle on ATF’s mission, operations and policies. This would at least provide clear direction and systemically reduce the chances for future scandals. It will be up to a new Congress and either a new or a re-invigorated second-term president, to exhibit the leadership and responsibility necessary to either resolve these long-simmering problems, or move to disband ATF and transfer its essential functions to other agencies.
Washington being in the state it is, however, few (including this author) are likely to hold their breath waiting for such an occurrence.