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The Bush administration faces its first big test this week in what may be the largest government reorganization in U.S. history. The transfer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from the Department of the Treasury to its new home in the Department of Justice becomes official Jan. 24 — at least on paper. The move is mandated by the Homeland Security Act, which became law in November, and government officials have since been scrambling to meet the deadline. Most agencies affected by the act were given more than a year to transfer to the new Department of Homeland Security. However, the ATF must complete its transition to the Justice Department in just 60 days. In the administration’s original homeland security proposal, the ATF remained part of the Treasury Department. But with Treasury’s other law enforcement units — the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Customs Service — joining the Department of Homeland Security, White House officials concluded the Justice Department would be a more logical home. Critics of the move fear that Attorney General John Ashcroft’s close ties to the gun lobby may lead to relaxed regulation of the gun industry. The move places the ATF in the same organization as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. attorneys prosecuting crimes investigated by ATF agents and received broad bipartisan support. Because of oversights in the hastily passed legislation, integrating 4,800 ATF employees into the Justice Department will likely continue for several months after the statutory deadline. “We identified up front what absolutely had to be done by January 24 and what could be done over a period of months. We view this as a very fluid process,” says ATF Deputy Assistant Director of Inspections Lewis Raden, who is overseeing the transition process for the ATF. The reason for the expedited move, say Senate staffers, was no more than a simple screw-up. Just before final passage, House Republicans inserted a provision in the Homeland Security bill that called for the ATF to split off its law enforcement units from its taxation components and move them to the Justice Department. Other agencies were given 12 months to integrate into the new Homeland Security department, but legislators failed to include the ATF in that provision. When Justice Department and ATF lawyers reviewed the legislative language, they were stunned to discover the transition would have to be completed by Jan. 24, the effective date of the law. “The way the piece relating to ATF was written, the general effective date provision applied to ATF,” Raden says. “There was no exception.” In yet another wrinkle, the law did not allot any money to cover transition expenses. Raden says the cost of the transfer is not yet known. One Senate Judiciary Committee staffer says the legislation — more than a year in the making but actually approved in a furious dash — didn’t receive the usual close review. “If there had been more eyes on the bill, this type of oversight most likely would not have happened,” says the staffer, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “Now the administration is doing its best to live within the law. Everyone is very clearly working under extreme pressure on a very tight deadline.” Within the Justice Department, integration is proceeding on two tracks. One group, led by the Justice Department’s Management Division, is focused on administrative aspects of the move. A second group, led by the DOJ Office of Legal Policy, is analyzing ATF programs to assess how they will interact with existing DOJ initiatives. “We’re trying to learn as much as we can about ATF, so when they get here, we’re speaking the same language,” says Adam Ciongoli, counselor to Attorney General Ashcroft. ‘LEARNING PROCESS’ On the legal front, two formal orders — one from the attorney general delegating authority to the ATF and one from the director of the Office of Management and Budget transferring ATF resources to the Justice Department — must be finalized by Jan. 24. Both documents require incredible precision. One small error, and the agencies could be left unable to operate. The tight deadline, say those involved, has been a burden. For example, the OMB order calls for an exhaustive inventory of the agency — every employee on the payroll, every service contract, every piece of property. For the ATF, which operates more than 200 field offices and had a budget of more than $850 million in 2002, cataloging the agency’s assets is an overwhelming task. Yet the ATF transition team learned of the requirement less than three weeks before the deadline. “Government reorganizations don’t occur every day,” Raden says. “It’s been a learning process.” In a sense, the ATF’s early transition illustrates how labor intensive the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security will be. Complicating the ATF’s move is the need to first split the agency into two distinct entities. The law enforcement functions, representing the vast majority of ATF employees, will be known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and will become part of the Justice Department. Meanwhile, those components handling regulation and taxation of the alcohol and tobacco industries, approximately 200 employees, will be known as the Tax and Trade Bureau and will remain as part of the Treasury Department. (Among other scenarios contemplated by the administration was one that would not have made a distinction between law enforcement and regulatory functions, instead leaving all alcohol- and tobacco-related entities as part of the Treasury Department and transferring only the firearms, arson, and explosives work to Justice.) The split requires divvying up the ATF budget and shared support functions, such as human resources, information technology, and finance. All told, Raden says his agency’s transition team has identified more than 150 tasks necessary for the move to occur. Some tasks, like replacing ATF agents’ badges and uniforms, will have to wait until well after the statutory deadline. MARRYING UP ATF officials say marrying the law enforcement component of their agency with the Justice Department will be a natural fit. ATF Director Bradley Buckles, a senior civil servant who began his career as an attorney with the ATF in 1974, will report directly to Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson. The new agency will be placed into the DOJ hierarchy alongside the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Marshals Service. James Johnson, a senior Treasury Department official under President Bill Clinton, says splitting off ATF’s regulatory functions may reduce the agency’s impact. “ATF was very effective because of synergies between the regulatory side and enforcement side,” says Johnson, now a partner in the New York office of Morrison & Foerster. “Separating those two functions is more than likely going to decrease valuable information flow and could have a negative impact on enforcement strategies.” Johnson notes that the agency went through “painful soul-searching and reconfiguration” after the death of four ATF agents in 1993 during the botched raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. He adds, “To tear that apart in 60 days is breathtaking.” Some ATF observers question whether moving the agency to the Justice Department will lead to a diminution in aggressive firearms enforcement. Last year, Ashcroft infuriated gun control advocates when the administration filed briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court asserting an individual right to gun ownership under the Second Amendment, reversing the government’s established legal position. “We’ll certainly be on the look-out for signs that Ashcroft is letting his pro-gun ideology interfere with ATF’s mission,” says Mathew Nosanchuk, litigation director and legislative counsel of the D.C.-based Violence Policy Center. “If there was ever a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, this is it.” ATF and DOJ officials maintain there will be no substantive change in enforcement of firearms laws. “The department is aggressively pursuing enforcement of federal gun laws and the attorney general is clearly committed to enforcing and defending those laws,” says DOJ public affairs chief Barbara Comstock. “The department’s filings before the Supreme Court in fact defend the constitutionality of federal firearms laws.”

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