Acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF, B. Todd Jones, has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the first, full-fledged director of the agency since the post was realigned to require Senate confirmation in 2006. Just days after the NRA expressed neutrality in the Jones confirmation process, Jones supporters were able to garner the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster and move on to the confirmation vote when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, switched her vote. Murkowski wasn’t the only Republican to cross over on the vote though; Arizona Sen. John McCain led the Republican delegation, which included Lindsay Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins and Mark Kirk. The rest of the Republicans in the Democrat-controlled Senate voted to maintain the filibuster that was blocking the Jones appointment.
After Murkowski changed her vote, Harry Reid held the voting open for a near-record five hours waiting for North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp to arrive to cast the final vote for closing debate and moving on to actual confirmation. The final confirmation vote only required a simple majority and was an easy victory for the Democrats. Echoing John Kerry’s statement that he voted against a measure before voting for it, most of the Republicans who had voted to close debate turned around and voted against final confirmation.
Jones was confirmed in spite of the fact that there are unresolved allegations of mismanagement and retaliation against whistleblowers in his capacity as U.S. attorney for Minnesota, and in spite of his apparent connections to the inception of Operation Fast and Furious, which put some 2,000 AK and AR-style firearms into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Jones has been acting head of the agency since August of 2011 when he took over from former acting director Kenneth Melson. Melson was tainted in the Fast and Furious scandal and was given a lateral transfer into a newly created position where he has been quietly counting down to his full-benefits retirement.
Since his appointment as acting director, Jones has stirred up some controversy by failing to take strong disciplinary action against ATF staff involved in the Fast and Furious scandal – even approving a sweetheart, double-dipping deal for one manager in the scandal who was allowed to take a position with J.P. Morgan bank in Southeast Asia while still collecting a check from ATF. Jones was also roundly criticized for issuing an introduction video to ATF staff that included what appeared to many to be a warning against whistleblowing. He quickly backpedaled and issued a statement saying that he had not intended to suggest that there would be negative consequences for whistleblowers, but agency insiders say the damage was already done and that employees were extremely leery of the new boss. Allegations that Jones retaliated against whistleblowers in his U.S. attorney’s office gives a ring of truth to the suggestion that Jones was indeed sending a warning.
While Jones does not have a record as an anti-rights zealot, he is a close friend and confederate of Attorney General Eric Holder and has a reputation as a 100 percent company man who will march to whatever orders he receives. He has also been strongly endorsed by anti-rights groups like the Brady Campaign and Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Guns. Interestingly, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents industry interests, supported the Jones confirmation. Their hope was to bring some stability to the agency that regulates their members’ business. The NRA decision to take a neutral position on the Jones confirmation took most rights activists by surprise. Most in the rights community opposed the confirmation based on Jones’ close relationship with Holder and questions about his involvement in Fast and Furious – both at its inception and in his handling of those involved after he became acting director.
As I have previously reported, Jones appears to have participated in a meeting of the attorney general’s Southwest Border Strategy Group in October of 2009. This group was put together to develop and oversee specific strategies and operations with the objective of damaging the power structure of Mexican drug cartels and their cohorts. All indications are that the Fast and Furious strategy of allowing known traffickers to buy virtually unlimited quantities of firearms and transfer those guns to cartel gangs in Mexico was first suggested and approved at this meeting. Operation Fast and Furious commenced shortly thereafter.
When asked about his involvement in Fast and Furious, Jones has responded that the program was closed down prior to his watch in ATF, but he has never directly addressed questions about the Southwest Border Strategy Group, his involvement in it, or its involvement in developing the Fast and Furious “gunwalking” strategy.
Now that the Senate has confirmed Jones’ appointment, ATF will, for the first time in almost seven years, have a full-time, fully vested director in charge. Whether that will make any difference in the operation of the troubled agency remains to be seen. ATF is tasked with the impossible job of enforcing some of the most complex and poorly written laws on the books. Those bad laws remains the root cause of the bureau’s long history of capricious interpretation, selective enforcement and targeting of technical violations rather than going after serious criminals.
Who knows? Perhaps B. Todd Jones will be good for the agency and for gun owners. Perhaps Jones will focus the agency on real criminal activity rather than making cases out of technical and paperwork violations. Perhaps he will move the ATF beyond its Prohibition-era enforcement and “Revenooer” heritage. Perhaps. But I doubt it. Now that the ATF has a confirmed director, gun owners can only watch and wait.