Stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee for nearly 11 months, the nomination of veteran ATF agent Andrew Traver to become the new permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has little chance of being scheduled for confirmation hearings anytime soon.
With ATF embroiled in a growing controversy about an undercover investigation known as “Fast and Furious” — in which hundreds of weapons were “walked” into Mexico — several elected officials, rank-and-file agents and others question whether the Obama administration wants to expose the operation to further public scrutiny.
Others, including conservative and pro-gun groups, have vigorously protested Mr. Traver’s ties to anti-gun organizations, including the liberal Joyce Foundation, and have called the head of ATF’s Chicago field office the “wrong choice” to lead an agency whose responsibilities include the oversight of those who sell and buy guns.
“Ten months is a long time,” said Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, who thinks the Obama administration is dragging its feet on the Traver nomination in part because of the still-unanswered questions about the Fast and Furious operation.
“If the administration wanted a confirmation hearing, there would have been a confirmation hearing,” Mr. Poe said. “It is pure speculation, but I don’t think the administration wants a gunbattle over this nomination. First, [Mr. Traver] comes across as almost opposed to the Second Amendment. Second, there is Fast and Furious. I would think the Senate would bring it up at the hearing.”
An aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Vermont Democrat has not scheduled a hearing on the nomination because Republicans “have not yet told us that they have completed their review of the materials received related to the nomination.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s ranking Republican, said the senator has had no discussions with panel Democrats or the White House about scheduling a hearing, adding that the Traver nomination “has never been brought forward for consideration by Sen. Leahy or the White House.”
“It takes 60 votes in the Senate to get a nominee confirmed, so it would do the White House a lot of good to reach out to both sides in the Senate, rather than just sending up contentious nominees,” Mr. Grassley said.
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine added that the White House had yet to hand over all the information Republicans requested about Mr. Traver in June when a question about his background came up.
“We have never heard back,” she said.
President Obama nominated Mr. Traver on Nov. 17, 2010, citing his efforts against street gangs and violence during his four years as special agent in charge of ATF’s Chicago field division. The president resubmitted the nomination in January when the new Congress came in.
“The president nominated Andrew Traver to be head of the ATF, and the Judiciary Committee has said they are still conducting their due diligence,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “As you know, the ATF has been without a confirmed director for years — predating this administration — and our hope is that, given the important mission of the bureau, we will soon have Senate-confirmed leadership there.”
Agent Thomas Ahern, spokesman for Mr. Traver, said the Justice Department had requested that Mr. Traver not grant interviews until the confirmation process is completed.
ATF has not had a permanent director since 2006 when the Senate first got the power to confirm directors. The Senate has yet to confirm an ATF director, with several Republicans blocking Michael Sullivan, President George W. Bush’s nominee in 2008, because of questions on whether he was hostile to gun dealers. His nomination was subjected to a Senate hold placed by Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Michael Crapo of Idaho and by then-Sen. Larry E. Craig, also of Idaho.
Mr. Sullivan served as acting director until Jan. 20, 2009, stepping down to give the newly elected Obama administration a chance to name it own ATF director.
The National Rifle Association announced its strong opposition to Mr. Traver just two days after the White House announced the nomination, charging that he has been “deeply aligned” with gun-control advocates and anti-gun activities.
“This makes him the wrong choice to lead an enforcement agency that has almost exclusive oversight and control over the firearms industry, its retailers and consumers,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action in a November 2010 statement.
The NRA cited Mr. Traver’s role as an adviser to the “Gun Violence Reduction Project,” an initiative of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Joyce Foundation that, among other things, recommended banning an array of weapons and urged the adoption of restrictive regulations for gun shows.
The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which lists gun violence as one its main issues, has been described as the country’s biggest donor of anti-gun grants, giving out $54 million since 1993 to advocacy groups, think tanks and researchers, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
One of its major beneficiaries has been the Violence Policy Center, a tax-exempt nonprofit group based in Washington that has called for an outright ban on handguns, semi-automatic rifles and other firearms, and substantial restrictions on gun owners. The group received $4.1 million from 1996 to 2006.
Mr. Obama served on the Joyce Foundation’s board of directors from 1994 to 2002.
‘Balance the needs’
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said his organization continues to oppose Mr. Traver’s nomination and question his ability as director to “balance the needs of law-abiding gun owners and going after criminals.” The NRA has 4 million members.
ATF has been at the center of a firestorm about the Fast and Furious investigation that allowed guns to make their way to drug cartels in Mexico, with scores of weapons ending up at scenes of violent crimes, including the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry. In August, the Justice Department removed Kenneth E. Melson as acting ATF director — a position he had held since 2009 — and replaced him with a new acting director, B. Todd Jones, who also remains as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota.
Mr. Grassley and Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have been investigating Fast and Furious for several months. They said in a July report that 1,000 weapons purchased in the operation are still unaccounted for, including AK-47 assault weapons and .50-caliber sniper rifles.
Fast and Furious has drawn widespread criticism. Veteran ATF agents testified before Congress that allowing weapons to be taken unabated to buyers in Mexico was not a recognized investigative technique. They said hundreds of weapons ultimately went to ruthless criminals in Mexico.
Mr. Obama has said he did not authorize the program, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also has pleaded ignorance, calling for an investigation of the operation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.
Some members of Congress want Mr. Traver confirmed soon, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
“I encourage my colleagues in the Senate to move swiftly to confirm Traver and provide the agency with much-needed leadership,” he said, referring to the five years without a permanent director.
Illinois Sens. Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican, who support the nomination, say the lack of permanent leadership has “hampered our nation’s efforts to combat street gangs and drug cartels and to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”
They told Mr. Obama in a letter in February that it was “long past time for the ATF director position to be filled,” adding that “Mr. Traver is the right man for the job.”