It's Official: The ATF and FBI Don't Get Along

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Diane Stevenson / Statesman-Journal / AP

The scene at West Coast Bank in Woodburn, Ore., after a bomb blast killed a local police officer and a state bomb-disposal technician on Dec. 13, 2008. FBI and ATF agents allegedly feuded over who was in charge

In April 2005, sheriff's deputies reached a suburban Seattle home in time to prevent a firebomb from detonating. But there was nothing the sheriff's department could do to defuse another volatile situation at the site: a feud between the explosives teams that showed up including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The attempted arson was the apparent handiwork of the Earth Liberation Front, a designated domestic terrorist group. But trouble at the scene emerged when FBI and ATF explosives experts seemed to believe their own agencies should head the investigation, recalls Sergeant John Urquhart, a spokesman for the King County sheriff's office. "It was clear that there was something going on. There was tension between the groups of ATF agents and FBI agents," Urquhart tells TIME.

That fight for jurisdiction was a "low point" for federal agents in Seattle, part of a long-simmering national rivalry that has festered since Congress moved the ATF from the Treasury Department to the Department of Justice (DOJ) after Sept. 11, according to an audit of explosives investigations that was released on Friday by the DOJ's Office of the Inspector General. Acrimony between the agencies has been common knowledge for years, but the report represents the most comprehensive public accounting to date.

The audit found that the conflict has led to confusion at crime sites, arguments in front of state and local investigators, tit-for-tat recrimination and even a threat from the FBI to arrest an ATF agent. Each agency trains separately and has its own explosives database and lab. Agents race to explosions to claim the lead in investigations, and some managers are unclear about jurisdiction. According to the audit, two ambiguous memos in 2004 and 2008 failed to clarify the relationship. "These disputes can delay investigations, undermine federal and local relationships, and may project to local agency responders a disjointed federal response to explosives incidents," the report said.

The impact of the bickering is more than unseemly public flare-ups, mixed signals and muddled investigations; the conflict could hamper the government's ability to effectively protect against terrorism, the report said. In early 2007, President George W. Bush signed a Homeland Security directive known as HSPD-19 that required Executive Branch agencies to develop a unified approach "to aggressively deter, prevent, detect, protect and respond" to terrorists' efforts to use explosives in the U.S. The report concluded that, unless the DOJ addressed the problem, "competition between the components on fundamental issues involving explosives investigations and lead agency authority will likely continue and impede the progress of HSPD-19 implementation."

Top agency officials claim that major conflicts have stopped and that recent disputes were isolated incidents. The auditors found otherwise: "We found explosives incident disputes between the FBI and ATF that were recent, significant and attributable to more than personality conflicts."

One recent incident was in December 2008, when the agencies feuded over a Woodburn, Ore., bombing in which a device outside a bank killed a local bomb technician and a police chief. In June 2007, agents fought in front of state and local bomb-squad personnel at a blast site in the Mojave Desert. The ATF claimed it was notified too late for agents to work the scene, while the FBI claimed that ATF responded late, then wanted to take over the scene. Other recent incidents took place in Baltimore, Phoenix, New York City and San Diego.

The agencies don't dispute the problems. In a joint statement, FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan and ATF Assistant Director W. Larry Ford agreed with the assessment and its 15 recommendations — all of them so far unresolved, according to the report. "We remain committed to identifying best practices associated with training, information-sharing and investigative response for explosive incidents," they said.