Congressional Republicans have been upset at the management at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which authorized a botched sting operation near the Mexican border that put guns in the hands of drug criminals.
But Republican leaders, responding to complaints from gun-rights lobbyists, have refused to confirm a director for the bureau since it was split from the Treasury Department eight years ago.
"They have had nothing but acting directors. Do you wonder why some things would go wrong there?" said John Killorin, a retired special agent from Atlanta and president of the ATF Assn. "This is a major law enforcement agency, and they need a confirmed director with the full responsibility and authority to run it."
President George W. Bush faced the same problem. His nominee, Michael J. Sullivan, was a well-regarded U.S. attorney in Boston and an ally of then-Atty. Gen John Ashcroft. But Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Michael D. Crapo, both Republicans, blocked his confirmation in the Senate in response to complaints from an Idaho gun dealer.
"People said to me at the time that if Mike Sullivan can't be confirmed, then no one was going to be confirmed," recalled Sullivan, who served as acting ATF director while remaining as the top federal prosecutor in Boston. "The agency needs a full-time leader. People there say morale is very low. They have felt abandoned because they didn't have a leader who had the confidence of the people at the Justice Department and the White House."
Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the failure to confirm the president's nominee to head the bureau did not explain the management failures at the bureau.
"While a Senate-approved director would be nice for the ATF, it wouldn't have stopped the disastrous mistakes made in the Fast and Furious strategy," he said, referring to the sting operation. "The acting director reported to the deputy attorney general who reports to the attorney general, so there should have been accountability."
The bureau has a long and colorful history. The first Congress imposed taxes on whiskey, and its agents were part of the Treasury Department. In the Prohibition era, its agents fought the illegal trade in booze, and they included Eliot Ness in Chicago. But more recently, its main duty has been enforcing federal gun laws.
Eight years ago, Congress removed the bureau from the Treasury Department and made it a separate law enforcement agency under the Justice Department. For the first time, lawmakers put its director under political control by requiring Senate confirmation of the president's nominee.
Since then, no one has been confirmed. Both nominees have drawn opposition from gun-rights groups, including the powerful National Rifle Assn. Obama nominated Andrew Traver, the ATF's special agent in Chicago, to lead the bureau, but his nomination has gone nowhere in the Senate.
"This president has consistently nominated hardened gun control advocates into positions that restrict the 2nd Amendment rights of Americans," Erich Pratt, communications director for Gun Owners of America, said in explaining the group's opposition.
Gun control advocates say these critics are opposed to the ATF itself.
"The bottom line is the gun lobby will oppose any nominee who promises to be a strong and effective director of the ATF," said Dennis Henigan, vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "Fast and Furious is what happens when you don't have a strong director," he said.
Two years ago, Kenneth E. Melson, an expert on forensic science, was named the acting director of the ATF. He stepped down last month in the aftermath of the failed sting operation. In his place, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. named B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, as acting director. Officials said he would commute from Minneapolis, where he continues to hold his prosecutor's post.