Column: Ex-ATF Official Says System of Presidentially Appointing an ATF Director Isn’t Working

James Cavanaugh was an ATF agent and supervisor for 33 years before retiring in 2010.

James Cavanaugh/atf photo
By James Cavanaugh

Since 2006 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives has been without a confirmed director to lead its critical missions for America.

I spent more than 33 years in ATF and I have worked for every director and acting director that the Bureau has ever had. They were good men, all (unfortunately we never had a woman).

Today, as the men and women of ATF face great challenges in the field, they also face some of their greatest criticisms. Now, more than ever, ATF needs a permanent director. Unfortunately, we’re not likely to get one under the current system: The Presidential appointment.

It used to be the director was appointed by the Department of Treasury or the Justice Department. That changed and the position was then supposed to be filled by presidential appointment.

The change was done for the right reasons: Respect for position and the agency, plus it was supposed to give ATF more equal footing in the law enforcement community.

Unfortunately, the change has not worked well. We need to go back to the umbrella agency – in this case the Justice Department — appointing an ATF director. It’s the only way we’ll get the permanent director we need.

Let’s face it. St. Peter himself could not get confirmed by presidential appointment as the Director of ATF in these times. I don’t fault lobby groups and political leaders for their concern and views on such matters. The difficulties in getting a presidentially appointed director are monumental based on the political realities of the country. Andrew Traver, who heads the Chicago ATF, was nominated by President Obama last November to become the new director, but his confirmation was stalled in the Senate, the result of strong opposition from the NRA.

Official Washington is obsessed with titles and the supernumerary trappings of power.

Presidential appointments allow access to that certain club of the political world. Anyone who holds a presidentially appointed position should be proud of that appointment.

Nevertheless, a presidential appointment is not required to be a strong and effective leader. And isn’t what this is all about?

Leaders earn and gain their real power not from certificates or anointments, rather from three things: Their integrity, their willingness to accept responsibility and their experience and competence to do the job.

So, in essence, the most effective way to get that leader is to keep it where it had been for the many decades: In the career civil service and in the career Senior executive service. The Justice Department can choose a very able person from that system to head up the agency.

I believe the director of ATF should be an ATF Special Agent, one who has sat out all night in the rain on a surveillance, worked on difficult bombings and arson cases, made undercover buys from violent felons, worked with victims of violent crime, talked to gun and explosives dealers and understands their issues, obtained and served dangerous search warrants, testified many times as a witness, worked with informants, heard shots fired in anger, and listened to the hate filled rants of Klansmen and militiamen neo-Nazis.

In other words,  a  leader who understands and has experienced the unique challenges that ATF faces.

Let’s fix this now.

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