ATF Getting Over ‘Terrorism Envy’
By Ryan J. Reilly | March 28, 2010 11:38 pm

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is getting back to basics and will emphasize its core mission of combating violent crime, conceding the lead role of investigating and stopping terrorism to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to an unpublished draft of its new strategic plan.

Headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

The draft plan, which covers fiscal 2010 through 2016, will focus on ten areas including criminal groups and gangs, and illegal fire arms trafficking, among others.

The previous strategic plan — which covered fiscal 2004 to 2009 — contained a mission statement that said the bureau’s work would seek to “prevent terrorism, reduce violent crime and to protect the public in a manner that is faithful to the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”

But under the new plan, the ATF is taking on a less prominent role in investigating terrorism – leaving the issue primarily to the FBI – as it instead refocuses on combating violent crime.

“The terrorism police in the United States are the FBI, rightfully so, that’s where they should be focused,” said an ATF official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been finalized. “We believe that our position, the way we best serve this country, is by impacting violent crime.”

The ATF will continue to assist the FBI by providing explosives expertise in, but not leading, investigations that are classified as “terrorist bombings.” That includes incidents tied to recognized terrorist organizations including domestic terrorism such as acts by animal- or environmental-rights extremists. According to ATF, 99 percent of all bombings in the U.S. are not tied to terrorist organizations and fall under its jurisdiction.

“We have a definite role in terrorism and national security, we regulate the tools of the trade,” said the ATF official. “But is our primary mission terrorism? No, it’s not.”

ATF went through a period “terrorism envy” after Sept. 11, the official conceded.

“But our responsibility, post 9/11, is really in the violent crime area,” the official said. “The entire focus of this plan is around reducing violent crime in America and protecting the public from incidents involving guns, explosives and fire.”

To demonstrate the changed focus, ATF has changed its slogan to “At The Frontline Against Violent Crime.” Previously, the ATF billed itself as “on the frontlines in our nation’s war against terror.”

But conflicts between the FBI and the ATF remain ongoing.

A DOJ Inspector General’s audit report issued last October found that the FBI and the ATF were not coordinating their efforts.

In testimony before a House panel last month, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said the agencies’ explosives investigators would race to the scene of an incident in the hopes of “calling dibs” on a case. As some agents acknowledged to Fine, they believed “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” The Deputy Attorney General is meeting this month with working groups from both agencies to resolve the conflicts.

Priorities Include Gangs, Bombs and Gun Trafficking

The draft of the plan, in the final editing stages, lists ten core functions of the bureau. ATF’s strategic leadership team prioritized six of those core functions under the new plan. Four of the prioritized core functions are mission activities – criminal groups and gangs; explosives bombs, and bombings; illegal firearms trafficking; and fire and arson. Two others are management priorities in the areas of workforce and modernization.

Core functions not listed as priorities under the new plan are alcohol and tobacco; firearms criminal possession and use; firearms industry operations; and explosives industry operations.

Main Justice reported earlier this month that ATF had not yet published a strategic plan, which was supposed to go in to effect at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2009. According to ATF officials, over the past two years the bureau has been implementing the strategic goals, even though the plan has not yet been publicly released.

Several trends and new threats have emerged since the last strategic plan, according to the report. The Internet has raised new issues for ATF because it makes it easier for trafficking guns and also makes it easy to access information about building bombs.

“A common trend emerging in explosives and bombing incidents is the increased use of [Improvised Explosive Devices],” according to the report. “The Internet has made the knowledge available to a broader range of the public than ever before, including those who would use that knowledge to commit violent crimes. Many of the materials required to produce an explosive device are common household goods, available with minimal or no regulation.”

ATF plans to prevent such incidents involving homemade explosives by partnering with various law enforcement agencies and preventing the misuse of the materials used to make homemade bombs. They will focus on the means of acquisition and distribution of such materials, according to the strategic plan.

The economic downturn may lead to an increase in arson for profit because small business owners and individuals may be under financial pressure and intentionally burn their properties to collect insurance, according to the plan.

In addition, the trafficking of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico is an increasing problem. ATF has requested to make permanent the new offices it established along the border using stimulus funds as part of the Gunrunner Project.

Measuring Performance Indicators

The new strategic plan is designed to be easy for the average citizen to read and comprehend, the ATF official said. Under the new plan, instead of technical definitions, the congressional budget submissions would read more like report cards with various assignments that add up to an overall grade. A performance index will weight each performance indicator in relation to one of the ATF’s 10 core functions.

“Anyone can look at these and say, okay, these are pretty straightforward statements,” the ATF official said.

According to the draft, the ATF’s Strategic Leadership Team “may change which performance indicators are included in the index at any time, but recognizes that such changes may positively or negatively affect the index.”

The official said the indexed approach is of interest to the Office of Management and Budget and the Justice Department.

A draft of the plan is available below.

ATF Strategic Plan FY 2010-2016 (Draft)

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