Pop quiz: Who runs the FBI?
If you said James Comey, you are both correct and at least a reasonably well-informed citizen. It isn’t too hard a question, especially considering the controversies in which Comey was embroiled during last year’s election. But the FBI directorship is a prominent, closely vetted position, and the person who holds that title is usually a pretty high-profile public figure.
Now, for extra credit: Who runs the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know. Practically nobody outside his immediate family knows that Thomas Brandon has been acting director of this scandal-plagued law enforcement agency since 2015. That was the year his predecessor, B. Todd Jones, quit amid a controversy over his proposal to ban certain forms of ammunition and certain storefront gun sale “sting” operations that critics called abusive and unfair.
Critics also blamed Jones for failing to correct oversight problems that led to the departure of his own predecessor, Kenneth Melson, who was acting director at the height of the “Fast and Furious” affair, in which the agency ended up furnishing high-powered weapons to Mexican criminals in an attempt to track down drug cartel leaders. Melson was reassigned within the Justice Department in 2011. You may vaguely remember the “gunwalking” scandal, but most likely you have never heard of Jones or Melson either.
Nor have you likely heard of William McMahon, who as acting deputy director of ATF was the most senior official to be held responsible (if that’s the word) for the misguided Fast and Furious initiative. It turned out that, even before he was forced out of his ATF post, McMahon had taken a new position in the private sector while still collecting his accumulated government leave, in violation of agency policy.
So even if you are in the minority of readers who has heard anything about ATF recently, it is safe to assume nothing you have heard is good.
The New York Times reported last week that ATF is the secret defendant in an almost-secret lawsuit charging agency employees with siphoning money from bogus cigarette sales to fund their own unaccountable slush fund. This secret fund is to be used for paying informants and other investigative activities “off the books,” meaning those conducted in contravention of the controls that were supposedly installed in the wake of the Fast and Furious disaster.
According to the Times, U.S. Tobacco Cooperative claims that it was “swindled out of $24 million” total. Records show that at least $2 million of this sum went into the pockets of ATF informants, who maintain that they were simply cooperating with undercover law enforcement activities and have done nothing wrong. While many of the details of the case are still secret, those that the Times reported revealed an unsettling picture of an agency walking the line between investigating smuggling operations and conducting them. For an agency that drew fire only a few years earlier for selling guns to criminals and failing to retrieve them, it is not a good look.
ATF is not only an agency that seems never to learn. It is one that seems to have no purpose distinguishable from the matters most of us believe should be the FBI’s purview. Of course, the FBI is not a perfect institution either – no institution is – but many of its historical flaws were recognized and addressed in the years after founding director J. Edgar Hoover left the scene. Americans, for the most part, trust the FBI. On the other hand, most Americans have scarcely heard of ATF, know almost nothing about it and, given recent events, have no reason to trust it.
Even allowing for the elements of bias, logical leaps and other imperfections common in New York Times investigations – elements that are not apparent, at least from my distance and at this stage, in its report on the ATF tobacco lawsuit – America just doesn’t need an unaccountable, largely ungoverned federal law enforcement agency that is prone to run off the rails. There is every indication that it has one regardless. When and how ATF got this way barely matters.
Defenders would probably argue that the FBI has more pressing things to do than chase down smuggled cigarettes, moonshine booze (to the extent such a thing still exists) and low-level illegal gun sales. Fair enough. If those crimes are important enough to state and local governments, let them use their own law enforcement resources to pursue those matters. Then local citizens know exactly whom to hold responsible for the outcomes, good or bad. If the problem becomes big enough to require federal law enforcement resources, it will be big enough to add to the plates of the FBI director and the attorney general.
Whatever good ATF is doing can be done elsewhere. Fold the good parts into the FBI and get rid of the rest.