Restoring the reputation of ATF

B. Todd Jones, right, talks with Gregory Gant, ATF's assistant director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs. (WTOP/J.J. Green)
B. Todd Jones, right, and Gregory Gant, ATF's assistant director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs, check television coverage. (WTOP/J.J. Green)

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON – The fallout from “Fast and Furious” presents a “short-term challenge” for B. Todd Jones, interim director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That challenge, he says, is ensuring the “public knows that this (‘Fast and Furious’) is not what this bureau is all about and what it does on a daily basis.”

But after the firestorm dies down, there still will be many of what he calls “heavy lifts” to take care of as ATF tries to stay focused on its core mission.

“The fundamental mission (is) keeping communities safe from violent crime — gun violence and gang violence in particular and the kind of damage they do — and working with our state and local colleagues to do that,” says Jones.

But ATF and its partner agencies have been waking up to a new global reality since May 1.

The killing of al-Qaida figures Osama Bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the ouster of three top leaders from North Africa and growing worry in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear activity have led to a scramble in the U.S. and abroad to secure vulnerabilities. U.S. officials have found evidence that terrorist organizations, drug traffickers and weapons dealers are joining forces to try to reach U.S. targets.

Meanwhile, the printer cartridge bomb plot, the “underwear bomber” and the Times Square plot are examples of schemes that require multi-level U.S. investigations to be thwarted.

The merging of international threats and seepage into the U.S. homeland worries law enforcement and intelligence officials coast to coast.

“The fight with terrorists is ongoing, but clearly we’ve had tremendous success against al-Qaida and its regional affiliates,” a U.S. counterterrorism official says. “What’s left of al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan and their franchise in Yemen poses a great concern, and we remain vigilant against threats from lesser-known groups.”

That has led to extra work for agencies like ATF.

“We do have a core mission that sometimes gets lost in the dynamics of terrorism and national security and fraud, white-collar crime,” says Jones.

But he is mindful that the U.S. national security portfolio is undergoing significant, unprecedented change as technology brings the world closer together and gives previously isolated foreign threats — living a world away — intimate access to U.S. targets.

In an attempt to strike a balance, ATF has changed significantly since Jones took over.

“In the last 90 days since I’ve been here, we’ve looked at a lot of things internally that may have had its genesis in that specific case (‘Fast and Furious’) in the Phoenix Division and some of the techniques and policies,” says Jones.

As a result, the agency has changed several policies, which Jones says include “undercover operations, confidential informants, firearms transfers — which has gotten the handle out in the public as ‘gun-walking.'”

Changes go beyond policies and practices, and extend to leadership.

Jones says those changes are not necessarily related “to the ‘Fast and Furious’ episode itself, but as a new director I’ve exercised pretty freely my prerogative to form my own management team and put people in positions that I think fit with roles and functions.”

The restoration of ATF to the glory days of Elliot Ness and the Untouchables from the 1920s Prohibition Era is not what Jones is out to achieve.

He says his immediate goal is to “provide some stability” in every ATF discipline “from morale to capacity,” in order to make sure that ATF “continues to grow as a major law enforcement component, that we are in sync with the DEA, the FBI and other agencies that we are working with collectively to keep the public safe.”

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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