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Head Of Embattled ATF Says Running Bureau 'Testing All Of My Skill Sets'

B. Todd Jones, acting director of the ATF, speaks in Washington in 2010 while Attorney General Eric Holder looks on.
Brendan Smialowski
Getty Images
B. Todd Jones, acting director of the ATF, speaks in Washington in 2010 while Attorney General Eric Holder looks on.

Nearly a year ago, Justice Department leaders turned to B. Todd Jones to solve one of their most urgent problems: a crisis at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The former U.S. Marine answered the call to duty and agreed to serve as ATF's acting director. His mission: to turn the bureau around in the face of congressional investigations that have shaken ATF to its core.

Federal agents involved in a flawed operation known as Fast and Furious wanted to target Mexico's violent Sinaloa drug cartels. Instead, they lost track of hundreds of weapons. Many were later found at crime scenes along the Southwest border, including near the body of slain U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

House Republicans have hardly let up since then. In late June, they took a historic vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over internal documents created after Terry died. This week, they issued a scathing report concluding that management failures set the stage for the Fast and Furious scandal.

"Yes, we are under the microscope, so to speak," Jones said with a laugh, in a rare interview Thursday with NPR.

Since Jones stepped foot inside the fortress-like ATF headquarters on Aug. 30, 2011, he said, "it's been a sprint for the last year."

Jones has put in place a new monthly oversight program for big investigations, designed for cases where at least 50 firearms appear to have been purchased illegally. He also laid down new limits on how ATF agents operate undercover and how they deal with confidential informants.

"We've made it clear if there were any questions at all that public safety trumps any firearms transfer," Jones said.

Jones has replaced six out of his eight top assistant directors at Washington headquarters. And he says he's tried to promote a new generation of leaders all over the country, including ground zero for the Fast and Furious scandal, along the Southwest border.

"Sixteen out of our 25 field divisions have new special agents in charge," he said. "It's really been a historic transformation, and it's really been an opportunity for us to ... cherry pick our best and brightest."

But five ATF managers in Washington and Arizona, who were blasted by House Republicans in their report on Fast and Furious, still work in the federal government.

That seemed to rankle Fox News host Megyn Kelly and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

"Of these five guys who you point to who are responsible for this at ATF, no one's been fired," Kelly said on her program this week. "They're still on the federal taxpayer dime. And the head guy, Ken Melson, he's working for DOJ right now. Are the taxpayers still paying all these folks and why?"

Issa replied: "They are still paying all these folks. We are concerned that there has been no real repercussions."

To which Jones says, just wait.

"On this issue of folks who are identified in the House report that are still with ATF, well there's this little concept called due process," Jones told NPR. "And until we get a factual report and a complete record from the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General, which is our normal process, and make the referral to our internal affairs division, then there are rights that employees have."

That inspector general report could come out within weeks, beginning a new chapter for the ATF.

Like other parts of the federal bureaucracy, the budget's flat. There's a hiring freeze. And there's another complication: the politics of gun ownership.

"The things that we do are limited by the state of the law, and there is a legal commerce in firearms in the United States," Jones said.

He resisted calling for new legislation, saying that's the prerogative of policymakers and elected officials.

"Ours is not to generate new statutes," Jones said. "We're being ... pretty aggressive and flexible in how we're approaching these issues of firearms trafficking and gun violence across the country with the current set of tools that we have."

Jones said he's not sure if or when the agency will have a leader who's confirmed by the Senate. That hasn't happened for the past decade, through both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Instead, Jones said, he's focused on what he can change, sending agents surging to work with state and local police in places where violent crime has ticked up, thanks to gangs or hard-core criminals who are "terrorizing" neighborhoods in Oakland, Calif., New Orleans, Philadelphia and Flint, Mich.

For the past year, Jones has been commuting between Washington and his home in Minnesota, where he's still the top federal prosecutor.

That means lots of packing and unpacking his old military sea bag.

"My wife and I learned how to do the sea bag drag and you know, spend time apart and still have things operate smoothly," he said. "So she's great and we're used to living out of a suitcase or a sea bag."

Jones, ever the military man, says he'll stay at ATF — which he calls the hardest job he's ever had — as long as his bosses at Justice need him.

"This is testing all of my skill sets, from the military to private practice to public service as a U.S. attorney," Jones said. "Collectively, we're getting it right and ATF is moving forward."

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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