There is little new in recent reports of a long standing feud between the nation’s two top law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In fact, since 1924 when J. Edgar Hoover took over the ineffectual and corrupt Bureau of Investigation in the Justice department, the FBI has been at odds with nearly every one, usurping the jurisdiction of every police agency from the sheriff’s office to its own siblings, like ATF.

With 12,500 agents it has developed into a perfect model of arrogant uncooperativeness, demanding everyone else’s information but refusing to give up its own. The result is a national police force that has been caught in one debacle after another without any detrimental consequences to its own operations but with the possibility of plenty for the welfare of Americans. The damage done to national security by the FBI’s long-term feud with the CIA prior to Sept. 11, 2001 may be incalculable.

But how can this happen? Easy. The FBI since the days of Hoover’s secret files operates virtually without oversight from either the Justice department or the Congress. Its lobbying success on Capitol Hill can be attributed at least partially to fear and its smooth propaganda machine that claims credit for every law enforcement achievement. The result has been a public so inculcated with the myth that a neighbor’s teen-ager said her teacher told her the ATF “murdered that woman at Ruby Ridge.” It was, of course, an overzealous FBI swat team. ATF wasn’t present.

Now it seems that what everyone has suspected all along is actually true. The U.S. Attorney General, for whom the FBI ostensibly works, has little or no authority over this agency. That’s clear from the fact that the bureau virtually ignored a memo issued by former Attorney General John Ashcroft which gave ATF jurisdiction over explosive investigations that are not of a terrorist nature.

Worse than that, in direct contravention of Ashcroft’s orders, the bureau developed its own dog sniffing training facility, duplicating one ATF has been operating successfully for 10 years, and took other steps to use its own bomb labs and data bases. Not only has the cost to taxpayers of this redundancy been considerable, the FBI’s labs have been notorious in their inefficiency.

Tainted evidence and premature conclusions based on faulty profiling about the bombing in Atlanta’s Olympic Park, for instance, led the FBI to make seriously wrong decisions. ATF explosives experts identified the bomb and warned that the likely bomber was an anti-abortion radical named Eric Rudolph, who eluded the FBI for years. It was ATF whose agents retrieved the truck axle that led to the arrest of those involved in the first World Trade Center bombing. The FBI official in charge refused to allow his agents into the pit where the evidence was found because it was too dangerous.

ATF is certainly not without its own problems. Its hierarchy has been a patchwork of those brought from other agencies since it joined the FBI in Justice from the Treasury department following a 9/11 restructuring. It has had several directors after setting off a firestorm at Waco in the ’90s, and its public relations office if not nonexistent is certainly timid. A recent director was replaced after questions arose about his handling of the new Washington headquarters. Congress, guided by the National Rifle Association, has not been kind to its financial needs and its agent force is only 2,500. But they are a streetwise bunch whose production levels are among the highest in law enforcement and whom local authorities say cooperate with locals and task forces easily in contrast to the FBI.

So who runs the FBI?

That seems to be anyone’s guess. Robert Mueller III, a former U.S. attorney from San Francisco, replaced empire building Louis Freeh, a former federal judge, as director and as far as anyone can tell has made few gains in solving the problems of cooperation and overreaching by his powerful field office generals although the propaganda office always says otherwise. Among the latest has been the misuse of national security letters to gain access to important records of millions of Americans. The bureau’s answer to that bad publicity was the usual pledge that it won’t happen again. Right!

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, often an FBI critic, was quoted in the local press as saying that anyone who wants to be attorney general in fact as well as in name ought “to end this (feud) yesterday.” Good luck finding that guy.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)