PBS Anchor Woodruff Finally Gets to Fast & Furious in Interview with ATF Director

Last week, NewsBusters reported that PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff failed to ask about the “Fast & Furious” Mexican gun-running scandal during an interview with B. Todd Jones, the new head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. But on Monday’s NewsHour, Woodruff played a previously unannounced Part Two of her taped interview with Jones, and this time she asked a question about “Fast & Furious.”

That’s not to say Woodruff suddenly turned into a hard-hitting journalist. In fact, she didn’t get to “Fast & Furious” until her very last question. Even then, she brought up the topic very gently:

"We know that the bureau has had some high-profile controversies in recent years, most notably Fast and Furious, this exercise where ATF agents, in effect, were standing by while drug cartels were taking -- trafficking in guns and moving them across the border. The cigarette smuggling ring we mentioned, other problems. How confident are you that this kind of thing is now a part of the past of the bureau and not the future?"
 

When Woodruff brought up the “cigarette smuggling ring,” she was referring to this question that she had asked previously:

"Reporting recently having to do with cigarette smuggling makes it clear that's another headache for you. And we read that in the past few years, smugglers with ties to terrorist groups have acquired millions of dollars from illegal cigarette sales. They funnel that cash, reportedly to al-Qaida, to Hezbollah. How big a concern is this?"
 

So Woodruff finally got around to “Fast & Furious” in her last question, but then she dulled the effect by referring back to a previous question about a less controversial topic. By tying the cigarette smuggling problem to “Fast & Furious,” she effectively gave Jones a way to avoid talking about “Fast & Furious.”

In addition, Woodruff asked a very mild question given the scandalous nature of “Fast & Furious.” She gave Jones an opening to put the controversy firmly in the past, which he did weakly. The ATF director assured Woodruff, “I have a higher level of confidence now 24 months on the job than I did when I came to this organization for the first time in September of 2011.”

Give Woodruff credit for at least broaching “Fast & Furious” in the second part of the interview, but not for the feeble way in which she brought it up.

Below is a transcript of the interview:


JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to part two of our newsmaker interview with B. Todd Jones, the new director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

The first half of our conversation focused on the agency's responsibility for keeping track of the nation's 300 million firearms.

Tonight, we discuss urban violence, Fast and Furious, and illegal cigarette profits going to terrorists.

We talked late last week at the bureau's headquarters here in Washington.

Todd Jones, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, thank you for talking with us.

B. TODD JONES, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how do you describe what the priorities are today, 2013, for this agency?

B. TODD JONES: Well, I think really, it's digested down to three things for me. One is to get the organization healthy, both from a morale standpoint, from a human resources standpoint, from a policies and procedures standpoint.

We need to get healthier. We're about to lose a generation of agents, and that's creating some challenges for us in terms of that knowledge transfer that we're going to need.

Second is to implement our new business practices, which is really driven around risk management and intelligence. We're not big enough to be everywhere and do everything well. And so this business model that we're implementing really allows us to focus in on the worst of the worst on the regulatory front and assisting our state, local and federal partners on identifying those trigger-pullers and traffickers around the country who are creating havoc in our community.

And, lastly, to bring ATF fully into the Department of Justice. It's only been in the department for 10 years, with five acting directors in the last seven years. It hasn't been a consistent implementation to make sure that we are completely in sync, both operationally and procedurally, with our brother and sister agencies at the FBI, the DEA, and the Marshals Service.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned trigger-pullers and traffickers. What does that -- what does that mean? What does that focus mean?

B. TODD JONES: Well, there are pockets of violence around this country that continue to exist and are tragedies, tragedies on a daily basis.

And a lot of the coverage is on the mass shootings. And those are tragedies too. But, to a certain degree, there's slow-motion mass shootings happening in urban areas in particular around this country that are equal tragedies, young folks killing young folks, people in the crossfire getting hurt.

And so what that means for us is, working with state local and federal colleagues, we are doing what we do best in terms of identifying trafficking patterns and identifying the worst trigger-pullers, armed career criminals wreaking havoc in those communities and bringing them into federal court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet I read that even though one of the mandates is to inspect gun dealers at least once every five years, that more than half the gun dealers in this country don't get that kind of an inspection within every five years. Why is that?

B. TODD JONES: Well, one of it is a resource issue. We have about 700, 800 investigators on our regulatory side.

They literally have tens of thousands of FFLs that they have to inspect. But what we have done...



JUDY WOODRUFF: Federally...

B. TODD JONES: Federally -- firearms licenses that they are required to inspect. And I think that's one of the stats.

But, you know, 95 percent of FFLs around this country are doing business lawfully, are paying attention to who they're doing business with, and, quite frankly, require less attention from us as regulators. And so our challenge has been to identify through our tracing mechanism, NIBIN and other tools that we have.

Where are those federal firearms licensees who continue to dump firearms into that illegal crime gun pool? Where are they? Are they obeying with the regs? And, if they're not, to pull their license. And that's where our focus should be, given the resources that we have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have a large mandate here. One of the -- one of it has -- the mandates has to do with tobacco.

Reporting recently having to do with cigarette smuggling makes it clear that's another headache for you. And we read that in the past few years, smugglers with ties to terrorist groups have acquired millions of dollars from illegal cigarette sales. They funnel that cash, reportedly to al-Qaida, to Hezbollah. How big a concern is this?

B. TODD JONES: Well, tobacco smuggling and tobacco trafficking cases that have a terrorist hook or involved organized crime are something that we do pay attention to. Again, there's only so much we can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this an area that you're beefing up or feeling that you need to pass and let other agencies worry more?

B. TODD JONES: You know, when it comes to terrorism or organized crime involved in cigarette trafficking, we will work with our colleagues in other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, to do some of those investigations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know that the bureau has had some high-profile controversies in recent years, most notably Fast and Furious, this exercise where ATF agents, in effect, were standing by while drug cartels were taking -- trafficking in guns and moving them across the border.

The cigarette smuggling ring we mentioned, other problems. How confident are you that this kind of thing is now a part of the past of the bureau and not the future?

B. TODD JONES: Again, I have been a trial lawyer most of my life and a prosecutor, and I have learned never say never, because we operate in a business that is chock-full of risk.

But what I do have a high level of confidence, given some of the fixes that we put in, the leadership team we have in place, and our institutionalization of really the core flaws as to what happened on the southwest border, I have a higher level of confidence now 24 months on the job than I did when I came to this organization for the first time in September of 2011.

We have done a fair amount of work to make sure that cases are monitored, that there's appropriate leadership involved in decision-making, and that the communications between what's happening out in the field and what the knowledge of headquarters here in Washington, D.C., knows is much, much better than it was when I arrived here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Todd Jones, the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, thank you very much.

B. TODD JONES: Thank you.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.