Politics & Policy

Why Bureaucracies Don’t Stop Terror

ATF agents respond to a shooting incident in Oakland, Calif., in 2012. (Reuters photo: Beck Diefenbach)
The Sayfullo Saipov case is another instance of serial institutional failure.

Of course Sayfullo Saipov “had been on the radar of federal authorities,” as the New York Times put it in a report that had the stink of inevitability on it.

Who else was on the radar of the relevant law-enforcement and intelligence agencies?

Omar Mateen, Syed Farook’s social circle, Nidal Hasan, Adam Lanza, the 2015 Garland attackers, the Boston Marathon bombers . . .

The 2015 Paris attackers were “on the radar” of French authorities, as were the Charlie Hebdo killers. The Copenhagen terrorists were known to local authorities. Man Haron Monis, who staged an attack in Sydney, had written a letter to Australia’s attorney general inquiring about whether he’d get into legal trouble for communicating with ISIS. The men behind the Quebec car-ramming and the shooting at parliament were known to Canadian authorities. Mehdi Nemmouche, who murdered four peoples at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, was a convicted armed robber who was under surveillance after traveling back and forth to Syria.

In that, terrorism is a lot like ordinary crime. Almost all of the murderers in New York City have prior criminal records, and New York is not unusual in this regard. A great deal of violent crime is committed by people who already have criminal histories.

Law-enforcement bureaucracies are like any other bureaucracy. Consider the example of the ATF, the federal agency charged with policing firearms sales, gun trafficking, and the like. Its budget grew by a third from 2005 to 2014, and it enjoys an advantage over most other law-enforcement agencies in that the great majority of parties under its purview are law-abiding by nature: licensed firearms dealers and those who acquire their firearms from licensed firearms dealers. Licensed dealers are a police agency’s dream target: already registered with the government, and in most cases doing business from a fixed public address with regular hours. In addition to its 2,500 or so special agents, the ATF has about 800 investigators who do nothing other than enforce regulatory compliance for firearms dealers, manufacturers, and other licensed entities. The agency’s budget is more than $1 billion a year. What do we get for all that?

An answer from the Department of Justice’s inspector general:

We found that the ATF’s inspection program is not fully effective for ensuring that FFLs comply with federal firearms laws because inspections are infrequent and of inconsistent quality, and follow-up inspections and adverse actions have been sporadic. Specifically, the ATF does not conduct in-person inspections on all applicants before licensing them to sell guns, and ATF compliance inspections of active dealers, including large-scale retailers, are infrequent and vary in quality. Even when numerous or serious violations were found, the ATF did not uniformly take adverse actions, refer FFLs for investigation, or conduct timely follow-up inspections.

About 7 percent of licensed firearms dealers are inspected annually — meaning that an American driver is nearly three times more likely to get a speeding ticket this year than a federally licensed firearms dealer is to get even a pro forma visit from an ATF inspector. Fewer than half of licensed dealers are inspected in any given five-year period.

In reality, those licensed dealers do a goodly amount of the ATF’s work for it, reporting people who try to buy firearms illegally by using forged documents or lying on purchase paperwork. How many other crimes are there in which the offender files papers with the federal government as part of the crime? Tax evasion and securities fraud, I suppose. Not many others.

On the criminal side of things, the ATF’s 2,500 special agents were responsible for cases leading to just over 6,000 convictions a year as of 2015, or about 2.4 convictions per agent annually. And they aren’t putting away the slickest criminals, either: By the ATF’s own reckoning, the people convicted in the cases it brings have on average 8.5 prior arrests and 2.4 prior convictions. Professor Moriarty they ain’t. But these knuckleheads don’t have a lot to worry about, either: We have strong federal straw-buyer laws on the books, but federal prosecutors for the most part will not bring those cases, which are not the sort of prosecutions that bring glamor and promotions.

The pretense that the ATF is an investigatory agency in the same sense as the FBI is a recent fiction. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that the ATF was moved to its current bureaucratic home in the Department of Justice; before that, it was in the Treasury Department, where it belongs: It is a revenue agency, not a criminal-justice agency. In that, it is a lot like the traffic division of your local police department, which is there to write tickets and collect fines, not to secure justice.

The pretense that the ATF is an investigatory agency in the same sense as the FBI is a recent fiction.

Of course, we’ve spent 30 years telling Barney Fife, who is at heart a revenue agent, that he is part of a “war” on crime, and he often acts like it — sometimes to disastrous consequence.

But if you want to understand bureaucracy, apply Matthew 6:21: Where a government’s treasure is, there will its heart be. The National Counterterrorism Center has about 1,000 employees; the Internal Revenue Service has about eighty times that number. And many of our friends on the left say the IRS is under-staffed and under-funded.

Sometimes a killer comes from out of the blue, as in the case of the recent massacre in Las Vegas. But more often, that is not the case. After 9/11, our law-enforcement and intelligence agencies asked for a lot: organization of federal efforts under a new Department of Homeland security — done. Bigger budgets — done. Substantially invasive new powers of surveillance and oversight — done. We’ve got plenty of red-light cameras, and we routinely lock people up for being poor. We lock people up for legally transporting firearms. But we still routinely see acts of terror committed by SOBs on various federal SOB lists.

The Sayfullo Saipov case is another instance of serial institutional failure, from immigration authorities to domestic counterterrorism forces. We’ve given them tremendous amounts of money, manpower, and investigatory authority. Now we need to see results.


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— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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