FBI and ATF Turf War Creates 'Confusion' At Bomb Scenes

A scathing memo from the Deputy Attorney General's office blasts both ATF and the FBI for their long-running turf war, and says that squabbles between the rival federal agencies can leave local first responders unsure who's in charge and confused when trying to defuse live bombs.

"We cannot afford to let any uncertainty about roles and responsibilities interfere with a timely and effective response to explosives incidents," says Deputy AG Gary Grindler in the eight-page memo, which orders ATF and the FBI to get along. "Prior efforts to remedy this situation through protocols and Attorney General memoranda have failed to achieve sustainable, clearly defined lines between ATF's and FBI's jurisdiction."

"Despite the impressive records of both agencies in this mission space, the current situation … must be remedied."

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While praising both agencies, the memo notes that they were asked six years ago to cooperate and still haven't figured out how.

In 2004, ATF and the FBI were asked to consolidate bomb data into a single database, merge parts of their bomb disposal training courses, and coordinate their responses to bomb incidents. Grindler's memo quotes an Inspector General's report that says the two agencies have not accomplished any of these objectives.

"The FBI and ATF are not adequately coordinating explosive-related operations," says the memo. "Conflicts continue to occur throughout the country regarding which agency is the lead agency. ... These disputes can cause confusion for local first responders . . . during explosive-incident responses."

In the case of many explosive incidents, such as the car bomb placed in New York's Times Square in May, local authorities actually defuse the bomb. While each agency has a handful of bomb technicians – 143 at the FBI and around three dozen at ATF – the several thousand bomb technicians on the nation's local and state police forces, fire departments and sheriff's departments are very often the first line of defense in defusing an explosive device.

Federal authorities, depending on the issue, then take over the lead in the investigation into the incident, employing the vast federal bomb databases, high-tech forensic labs, and regulatory and investigative firepower. In May, the FBI took the lead and in less than two days Faisal Shazhad was arrested and soon was admitting what he had done.

That incident could be considered a model for how the Department of Justice has attempted to sort out the turf squabble. In any incident where national or international terrorism is involved, or where the circumstances point toward terrorism , like the targeting of government buildings or transportation, the Attorney General has ordered that the FBI will take the lead. In any domestic incident where terrorism is not believed to be the motive, ATF will take the lead.

The Deputy AG's memo is an effort to resolve disputes before they happen.

"Of paramount importance is the need for clearly defined roles and immediate, real-time sharing of information between all relevant law enforcement components so that there is never an incident where actionable intelligence does not get into the right hands because of concerns about which agency will be the lead,' states the memo.

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