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In Apparent Reversal, Issa Criticizes ATF Nominee

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement that the nomination of Jones, above, is a “slap in the face.”

Rep. Darrell Issa blasted President Barack Obama’s nomination of B. Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as a “slap in the face” on Jan. 18 — less than a month after Issa appeared to endorse Jones for the job.

Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement Jan. 18 that Jones’ nomination is “saddled by a string of bad decisions related to the agency’s greatest recent failure,” a reference to the botched “Fast and Furious” operation in which the ATF lost track of thousands of guns it had sought to trace to Mexican drug cartels. Two of those guns later turned up at the murder scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona.

Jones, who has been the agency’s acting director since August 2011, “was at the helm of ATF as many troubling problems from the fallout of Operation Fast and Furious festered,” said Issa, who has led the long-running congressional investigation into the operation. “His specific decisions on a number of Fast and Furious related issues raise concerns about his judgment and ability to lead the agency.”

“Because of the numerous ATF mistakes during his tenure as acting director pertaining to Fast and Furious,” the California Republican added, “his nomination is a slap in the face to the family of fallen Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, Mexican citizens whose murder has been linked to Fast and Furious weapons and ATF whistleblowers whom he failed to support.”

Issa’s statement, however, is a departure from comments he made in an interview with CQ Roll Call on Dec. 20, when he was asked about Obama’s call for a permanent director for the agency as part of a broader series of gun control efforts. The ATF has not had a permanent director in the six years that the position has required Senate confirmation. But the Dec. 14 Connecticut school shooting has refocused attention on the beleaguered federal agency charged with regulating and inspecting firearms dealers.

During the Dec. 20 interview, Issa said that questions about Fast and Furious are interwoven with the agency’s leadership, particularly after Obama claimed executive privilege to withhold documents related to the operation that Issa’s committee has been seeking. But Issa also indicated that Jones — who simultaneously works as a U.S. attorney in Minnesota — should devote more time to leading the agency.

“As long as the president asserts executive privilege to cloud the whole question of failures at the ATF, I don’t think he stands on high ground to have a Senate-confirmed permanent director,” Issa said. “Ultimately, he should have the U.S. attorney who is acting [director] quit his day job back home and work 100 percent on the ATF.”

Becca Glover Watkins, deputy communications director for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Jan. 18 that Issa’s earlier comment was not intended to be a “broad, sweeping” statement about the agency’s leadership and that the chairman instead was drawing attention to the fact that Jones now performs two demanding jobs simultaneously.

“Whoever is at the head of the ATF needs to be doing it full time,” she said.

Issa is not the only influential member of Congress who has concerns about Jones’ nomination to the ATF. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, raised questions about Jones’ ties to Fast and Furious after Obama announced the nomination as part of the gun control proposals he outlined Jan. 16. In selecting Jones, Obama abandoned his previous choice for the job, Andrew L. Traver, whose nomination languished in the Judiciary Committee for more than two years.

“The new nominee, B. Todd Jones, is a familiar face to the committee, but his ties to the Fast and Furious scandal raise serious questions,” Grassley said in a statement.

The Fast and Furious operation has been a confrontation point between the Obama administration and the Republican-led House, which voted June 28 to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents Issa has sought. Issa’s committee is suing Holder in federal court in the District of Columbia to obtain a judicial order forcing the administration to release the documents.

In his statement Jan. 18, Issa identified six specific concerns that he has about Jones as a result of Fast and Furious. He accused Jones of failing to hold responsible officials accountable for the operation; failing to express support for whistle-blowers who called attention to it; demonstrating a “perceived hostility” to those whistle-blowers; “affording special treatment” to a supervisor involved in the operation; showing an “unwillingness to engage Congress”; and failing to “apply lessons” from the scandal.

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