WASHINGTON — In the five years since the FBI and ATF were merged under the Justice Department to coordinate the fight against terrorism, the rival law enforcement agencies have fought each other for control, wasting time and money and causing duplication of effort, according to law enforcement sources and internal documents.
Their new boss, the attorney general, ordered them to merge their national bomb databases, but the FBI has refused. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has long trained bomb-sniffing dogs; the FBI started a competing program.
At crime scenes, FBI and ATF agents have threatened to arrest one another and battled over jurisdiction and key evidence. The ATF inadvertently bought counterfeit cigarettes from the FBI — the government selling to the government — because the agencies are running parallel investigations of tobacco smuggling between Virginia and other states.
The squabbling poses dangers, many in law enforcement say, in an era in which cooperation is needed more than ever to prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Michael A. Mason, a former head of the FBI's Washington field office who retired in December from a senior post at FBI headquarters, said outside intervention might be needed.
"A lot of these things require a little adult supervision from the Justice Department or Congress, which will resolve a lot of the food fights these two agencies find themselves in," he said. Mason said that although both agencies "have in their hearts the safety and security of this country," he worries about a potential attack "where the ball got dropped, and it's not going to matter whose fault it was because information wasn't passed or shared."
ATF's transfer from the Treasury Department to the FBI's home at Justice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was supposed to eliminate long-standing tensions between two proud and independent entities.
"We thought we'd get more cooperation from two agencies that ought to be cooperating in the war on terror," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said of the 2002 law that created the Department of Homeland Security and authorized the merger.
But the transfer, thrown together in the final stages of the largest government reorganization in a half-century, proved to be a merger in name only. ATF came under the Justice Department seal but maintained its offices and headquarters. Little thought went into melding the distinctive cultures.
The new law not only failed to repair clashing jurisdictional lines, it also expanded ATF's role in domestic terrorism cases, bringing that agency into conflict with the core mission of the post-Sept. 11 FBI.
Officials from both agencies acknowledged occasional tensions and said they are working hard to protect Americans and ensure smooth relations. They provided numerous examples of cooperation, including the response to bombings in Iraq, the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the investigation of the Virginia Tech massacre led by state and university police.
But law enforcement sources describe an unyielding struggle for control of explosives, arson and tobacco investigations that has played out in recent months at the government's highest levels. A dispute over ATF's role in explosives cases, sources said, has helped delay a White House-ordered national strategy to protect the nation from terrorist bombs.