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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Let's consider the status of a federal agency that's been in the news again and again.

MONTAGNE: When bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, the investigation included dozens of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They analyzed fragments of the bombs.

INSKEEP: And when a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, investigators called on ATF experts again.

MONTAGNE: It turns out that same agency is short hundreds of investigators and also missing a leader.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's got kind of an antiquated name but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms exists for a crisis like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN EXPLOSION)

DERRICK HURTT: Chloe, you safe?

CHLOE HURTT: Dad...

HURTT: You OK?

HURTT: Dad, I can't hear.

HURTT: Cover your ears.

HURTT: I can't hear. Get out of here.

JOHNSON: That explosion earlier this month in tiny West, Texas, left a crater 93 feet wide. Agents from the ATF's national response team are still on the scene, sifting through rubble at the blast site.

With a little over two thousand agents, the ATF is a fraction of the size of its sister agency, the FBI. But it runs the show when it comes to tracing weapons at crime scenes and investigating bombs and arson.

Bart Johnson is executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

BART JOHNSON: The fact of the matter is that they're there to help. They were there to investigate. And they were there to, you know, put the citizens at ease that they are confident that we're all working together, which they were.

JOHNSON: But even as ATF agents take part in major investigations, Johnson says, the confirmation process for their leader remains bogged down in Washington.

JOHNSON: You need a director in place. It's sometimes unsettling not to have a boss overseeing the activities.

JOHNSON: In fact, because of bitter divisions in Congress over gun regulations and criticism from the National Rifle Association, it's been almost seven years since the agency had a permanent leader confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Earlier this year, President Obama nominated the acting chief, B. Todd Jones. to direct the ATF. The White House said Jones, a former Marine, would help the law enforcement agency do its job.

Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley has his doubts. Grassley says he's not getting all the documents he wants.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY REPUBLICAN, IOWA: I believe that the ATF needs a Senate-confirmed director. However, if we're prohibited from asking questions about important matters that get to the core of leadership, character and candor about a nominee's ability to run an agency, it makes our job of confirmation that much harder.

JOHNSON: Grassley has raised questions about Jones's treatment of whistleblowers and about his role in a big ATF scandal known as Fast and Furious. That's when agents along the Southwest border lost track of about 2,000 weapons. Some of them later turned up at crime scenes, including the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

But Todd Jones, a former top prosecutor in Minnesota, came on board after that scandal erupted. A former FBI official in the state also faulted Jones for not making the fight against violent crime there enough of a priority.

But that doesn't sound right to Robert Small. Small worked with Todd Jones in the U.S. Attorney's Office there for years.

ROBERT SMALL: Not always did law enforcement folks agree with the priorities. But, you know, that was the United States Attorney's job, was to establish the prosecutorial priorities. And I thought that Todd did a very thorough and careful job of establishing the priorities here in Minnesota at that time.

JOHNSON: Doing more with less is a big challenge at the ATF. The Inspector General at the Justice Department recently said the agency is failing to inspect gun shops every five years, mostly because it doesn't have enough investigators to do the job.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hasn't yet scheduled a hearing on Jones's nomination. But two Democratic sources said they could move ahead with one in late May.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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