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‘Battle of the badges’ between ATF and FBI

Agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are feuding over bomb investigations, failing to share information and refusing to train together, according to a draft report.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are feuding over bomb investigations — racing each other to crime scenes, failing to share information and refusing to train together, according to a draft report obtained by The Associated Press.

The report says Justice Department bosses have repeatedly failed to fix the problem.

The Justice Department's Inspector General, Glenn Fine, has drafted a preliminary report on the two agencies' repeated squabbles to claim jurisdiction in investigations of explosives incidents across the country — from Times Square in New York City to Arizona and the West Coast.

The most recent documented spat came last December when the FBI protested a local prosecutor's request to use the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to investigate a blast that killed a local bomb technician in Woodburn, Ore.

‘Conflicts can delay investigations’
FBI and ATF supervisors "tend to deploy their employees to the larger, more sensational explosives incidents, sometimes racing each other to be the first federal agency on the scene and disputing upon arrival which agency should lead the investigation," according to a draft version of the report.

"Such conflicts can delay investigations, undermine federal and local relationships, and may project to local agency responders a disjointed federal response to explosives incidents in their area," the draft report found.

Officials in both agencies claim such problems have been resolved, yet the report stated that "disputes between the FBI and ATF continue to occur."

Changes and corrections are still being made to the draft document.

FBI and ATF officials did not immediately comment. A Justice spokeswoman declined to comment on the draft.

The report, which analyzes the agencies' interactions from 2003 to early 2009, is expected to be released later this month, though an exact date was uncertain.

‘Battle of the badges’
So-called "battles of the badges" between different law enforcement agencies are nothing new, but the ill will between FBI and ATF dates back decades and has survived the 2002 transfer of ATF from the Treasury Department to Justice. Some had thought putting the agencies in the same department might end the feud, but the Justice Department has spent years trying to get the two sides to cooperate.

The inspector general said the problem is exacerbated by the fact that Justice Department instructions don't clearly spell out who is in charge of federal responses to crime scenes involving explosives.

The confusion lies in the mandate of each agency: The FBI is charged with investigating terrorism in any form and the ATF is charged with investigating incidents in which explosives were used as a weapon.

Often, it is hard to tell when police first arrive on the scene whether the motive behind a bomb or explosive device is terrorism or something else.

Traditionally, it has been the job of the No. 2 official at the Justice Department to resolve such issues, but the inspector general found that for years, deputy attorneys general have failed to do so, despite written instructions issued in 2004 and 2008.

"We believe it is critical that DOJ issue a new directive to clearly define lead investigative authority between the FBI and ATF and require coordination of investigative actions," the draft report recommends.

Other instances of turf fights
While the two agencies are supposed to be entering information into a joint database, the review found the FBI hasn't entered anything into the database since 2004. The ATF has entered data into the system, but not consistently, the auditors found.

The two agencies also have separate training and laboratory facilities.

Other instances of turf fights cited in the report include:

  • In March 2008, both agencies responded to a bombing near a U.S. military recruiting station in Times Square. ATF sought to have the suspect charged immediately in what the inspector general called a "race to the courthouse" to take the case from the FBI, which was already pursuing the suspect in a different state.
  • In November 2007, the FBI was notified of a pipe bomb found in a truck in Palo Verde, Ariz., and claimed jurisdiction as a terrorism case. Notified several hours later, ATF disputed any connection to terrorism in a confrontation in front of local law enforcement officials.
  • In September 2007 an explosives incident at a bridge in San Diego, Calif., led FBI authorities to claim the matter was related to terrorism, which ATF publicly disputed.