Tuesday, May 13, 2008

5 Years On, ATF and FBI Still Letting Turf Wars Impede National Security

Five years after the Homeland Security Act of 2002 united the ATF and FBI under the umbrella of the Justice Department in an effort to avoid the lack of communication and cooperation which led to the failure of the previous September, turf wars are still creating a 'lack of efficiency.'

Writing for the Washington Post, Jerry Markon examines the troubled relationship, saying "the rival law enforcement agencies have fought each other for control, wasting time and money and causing duplication of effort."

Anyone paying even the slightest attention to the investigation of the attacks on the World Trade Center would have been overwhelmed by the significance granted to the complete lack of cooperation between the various agencies within the Executive branch. Succumbing to years of protracted turf wars, the agencies were essentially running completely independent of each other, working more toward supplanting the others than on protecting the country.

The Homeland Security Act was designed to prevent precisely those jurisdiction battles from hampering national security efforts.

The ATF's transfer from the Treasury Department to the FBI's home at Justice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was supposed to eliminate long-standing tensions between two proud and independent entities,

"We thought we'd get more cooperation from two agencies that ought to be cooperating in the war on terror," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said of the 2002 law that created the Department of Homeland Security and authorized the merger.

But the transfer, thrown together in the final stages of the largest government reorganization in a half-century, proved to be a merger in name only. The ATF came under the Justice Department seal yet maintained its offices and headquarters. Little thought went into melding the distinctive cultures.

"It was all slapdash," said a Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an authorized spokesman. "One day you wake up, and ATF is part of Justice."

The new law not only failed to repair clashing jurisdictional lines, it also expanded the ATF's role in domestic terrorism cases, bringing that agency into conflict with the core mission of the post-Sept. 11 FBI.

Thus, in addition to merging the competing parties, the HSA essentially created yet newer conflict by adding 'Explosives' to the ATF's name, ensuring even more jurisdictional battles over domestic explosive cases.

Inter-agency conflicts are sometimes inane, such as when "the ATF inadvertently bought counterfeit cigarettes from the FBI." But, too often, investigations into domestic terrorism devolve into a battle for jurisdiction, putting the people the agencies are supposed to protect at risk in the name of pride.

In 2004, Attorney General Ashcroft ordered the bomb data centers and most explosives training be consolidated under the ATF along with all training for bomb-sniffing dogs. The FBI has since refused to transfer the databases and is running its own dog training.

In an act of shear brilliance, Ashcroft essentially "left it up to the task forces to determine terrorist links" in order to decide which agency held jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, in practice this has led to "both agencies descend[ing] on the came crime scenes, often at the same time."

Essentially, Ashcroft tried to solve a conflict by passing the buck to the agencies themselves. By declaring that the FBI handle terrorism-related explosive cases and the ATF all others, he still left it up to anyone to make that distinction. There is no clear arbiter of which agency should handle both cases, and clearly both side with their own in each instance.

It is sad that years after it became clear that jurisdictional and turf battles played a significant role in failing to thwart the attacks of 9/11, Executive branch agencies are still allowing bickering and infighting to interfere with the safety of the American people.

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