WASHINGTON — More than three years after its badly botched raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the heat of criticism continues to sear the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The Waco blunder, combined with revelations of racial bias in the agency, have turned many Americans, and more than a few members of Congress, into frequent critics of the 1,800-agent ATF.
In a report released yesterday, nearly a year after hosting congressional hearings into the Waco affair, two prominent House Republicans pounded the ATF anew and called for reforms in its command structure.
Questions about the ATF's future come at a time when terrorist bombings, militia activism, gun violence, and a spate of church arsons are shaking some Americans' confidence in their security. But observers worry that hasty reforms, if driven by politics rather than objective reasoning, could undermine the agency's effectiveness.
"It's a dangerous time," says Robert Louden, director of the Criminal Justice Center at John Jay College in New York. "Given the bombings in Oklahoma City and New York, the recent arsons, and the growth of the militia movement, I think it's a poor time to be paying too much attention to bureaucratic changes."
Yesterday, Reps. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida and Bill Zeliff (R) of New Hampshire, the two co-chairmen of the special Waco hearings, described the ATF's role in the Waco raid as "grossly incompetent." They blamed officials from the Treasury Department, which oversees the bureau, for failing to provide adequate supervision. They called, too, for a hearing into whether ATF's functions ought to be moved from Treasury to the Justice Department, where they would be supervised by the attorney general. "The ATF has a black eye in terms of its reputation," Mr. McCollum says.
The bureau's critics often describe ATF as an anachronism. Established early in the century to prosecute moonshiners, ATF has grown into an agency that collects several types of taxes, performs regulatory duties, and maintains law-enforcement jurisdiction over arsons, bombings, and firearms violations. They argue that the Treasury Department's monetary role is incompatible with a bureau that handles sensitive police work.
But beneath these complaints, many observers say, are deeper political motives. Opponents of gun-control laws, such as the National Rifle Association, have a vested interest in discrediting an agency charged with enforcing these laws, they say.
Much of the pressure to reprimand or dissipate the ATF, they argue, comes from members of Congress with ties to gun groups. "It's no secret that the ATF is not appreciated by the NRA," Mr. Louden says. "If any sweeping decision is made, it could be viewed as caving in to pressure groups."
Even so, there's broad consensus that some reforms are needed, particularly in light of Waco, the participation of several ATF agents in a purportedly racist picnic, and the bureau's settlement of a racial bias suit brought by current and former black agents. "They've clearly had problems," says Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
In recent months, Treasury officials have taken steps to resolve these issues. The department prepared an exhaustive and critical internal report on Waco and has installed a new leadership team. Minority hiring has become a priority, and the bureau has begun a cross-training program to make agents more familiar with each of the bureau's disparate functions. Breaking up the ATF or shifting it out of Treasury, Mr. Rubin says, would dilute some of the ATF's expertise.
"Whenever [the ATF] is analyzed by people who don't have an ax to grind," he says, "they conclude that it's better off where it is."
Critics of the ATF, like Larry Pratt, president of the Gun Owners of America, argue that not only is the ATF incompetent, but it also represents a larger problem with federal law enforcement: too much power. Mr. Pratt argues that the ATF's role in coordinating the arsons in black churches throughout the South represents an unconstitutional usurpation of the jurisdiction of local police.
But many observers say these arguments do not take into account new threats to domestic security, such as the "Viper Militia" group in Phoenix, which is charged with planning attacks against federal buildings there. The emergence of such coordinated and covert threats, they say, calls for a more centralized federal police force.
Already, Louden notes, there are 17,000 local law-enforcement agencies and about 70 different federal ones, whose jurisdictions often overlap. While he acknowledges the dangers of concentrating law-enforcement powers, Louden says that in cases like the Oklahoma City bombing, it's crucial to "put aside turf issues and politics, and create some kind of a master puppeteer who can reach into every agency, gather the best resources, and get the job done."