- ATF is laboring under the cloud of "Operation Fast and Furious"
- Firearms from the U.S. wound up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels
- The acting director concedes "these have been difficult times for everyone in ATF"
- He announces a major shake-up, with 11 high-level changes
The man named one month ago to head the troubled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives announced Wednesday he is dramatically shaking up the agency, which he readily acknowledged has been damaged by a controversial gun-trafficking operation.
Acting Director Todd Jones said after 30 days of studying ATF issues and staff he is instigating a major shuffle of ATF personnel but is not yet firing anyone. Jones vowed a thorough internal review of "all investigative processes."
Jones announced 11 high-level changes, including naming as his deputy Thomas Brandon who has overseen the Phoenix office for the past six months following bitter internal controversy over a gun operation there.
"These have been difficult times for everyone in ATF because of a case in a division," Jones told reporters.
He then quickly confirmed he was talking about the controversial "Operation Fast and Furious" in ATF's Phoenix Division, which featured ATF agents allowing illegally purchased firearms to "walk" from Arizona gun stores across the Mexican border and into the hands of drug cartels. The plan was to trail the weapons to the cartels, but thousands of firearms were lost in the process.
Jones also said he understood trust has been damaged within ATF and said it would take time to heal.
"We're going to have to rebuild trust," he said, referring to the reputation of ATF from its own agents and from other law enforcement agencies.
The issue blew up in December 2010, when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered, and two guns at the crime scene were part of the "Fast and Furious" operation."
The continuing debate over who approved the operation and how soon top Justice Department officials knew of it is fueled in part by partisan politics.
Some Republicans are clamoring for a special counsel to investigate whether Attorney General Eric Holder or any of his top political aides knew of the operation early on, and could have stopped it.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, point to a similar "gun-walking" operation run out of the Phoenix Division's sub-office in Tucson that began in 2006 under the Bush administration called Operation Wide Receiver. Some of the defendants in that case are still being prosecuted.
Jones said he was confident there were no other operations which involved cases of "guns walking."
Jones sought to stay above the political fray. "I'm a political appointee, but I'm not a politician," Jones told a dozen reporters at ATF headquarters in Washington.
Jones insisted he had no view on the Republican-led congressional investigation. He lumped the two Arizona cases together and said the ATF now has a "heightened awareness of the tactic allowing gun-walking."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a statement after Jones' announcement saying, "The reassignments are positive, especially in the case of Tom Brandon who I hope can help lead this agency out of its troubles.
"But, I caution that rearranging the chairs on the deck, won't make Fast and Furious go away."
Grassley said he also questioned the timing of the announcement. "There is a lot of effort at the Justice Department to spin the fact that the Attorney General was less than candid before the House Judiciary Committee, and what better way to make that go away than a bureaucratic shuffle," Grassley said in the statement
Jones was named to the position by Holder 30 days ago, when former Acting Director Ken Melson, under fire, was ousted and given a job as an adviser at the Justice Department.
Jones said he plans to continue to wear two hats. He heads the ATF while also serving as U.S. attorney for Minnesota. He expressed confidence he can manage his time to serve in both capacities.
The acting director sidestepped political issues but was clear in his caution to Congress not to slash the ATF budget because of the current controversy.
"I hope that does not happen. We'll be smart about what we ask for," he said.
Jones said he intended to refocus the ATF on its core mission of fighting violent crime and protecting the American public.
He repeatedly said he would await the outcome of the ongoing congressional investigation of "Fast and Furious," as well as the inspector general's investigation before deciding whom to hold accountable.
"What went wrong? I don't know what went wrong," Jones said. "We'll have to wait for those reports."