WASHINGTON — A "rogue operation" within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has accelerated approval of import permits for 150,000 modified assault weapons, despite President Clinton's clear intent to keep such guns out of the country, administration sources said Wednesday.
The permits were approved "in an expedited manner" by a group of ATF agents who "knew full well that the weapons were all but banned by the president," said one senior administration official. The official noted that Clinton is on the verge of issuing an executive order barring imports of the rapid-fire arms. The order is being drafted with the ATF's help.
White House officials are "livid" about the permit approvals, which have complicated the already-difficult process of developing a policy to stem the influx of the so-called copycat assault weapons. One White House official was so irate about the matter that he put his hands around the neck of an ATF agent, according to two administration officials who were in the room.
Officials at the Treasury Department, which has jurisdiction over the ATF, confirmed Wednesday that permits allowing dealers to import scores of copycat weapons had been approved last month. The approvals were brought to the attention of the department by a high-ranking ATF official, a Treasury official said.
"We are concerned about this matter," a senior Treasury Department official said on condition that his name not be used. "We have a review taking place to look at why these permits were approved. The concern comes from the fact that there was clearly a policy review taking place that should not have been a secret to anyone."
Foreign-made, rapid-fire weapons--altered to get around legal restrictions on imports of assault rifles--are circulating in the United States by the thousands.
The guns that were hurriedly approved last month include 50,000 Romanian-made WUM-1s and 100,000 Egyptian-made MISTRs. Both weapons are knockoffs of the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, an administration official said.
The White House confirmed three weeks ago that the president was planning to issue a directive temporarily banning new import permits for about 30 versions of the modified assault weapons while the government studies whether they should be permanently barred on grounds that they are unsuitable for sporting purposes. By the time the president's plan was made public, White House and ATF officials had been working on the matter for weeks, administration officials said Wednesday.
In part because of pressure from Congress, the White House has been studying the possibility of expanding the temporary ban to prevent imports of weapons that already have been issued permits, administration officials said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who originally focused the president's attention on imported copycat assault weapons, said she was alarmed to hear that the ATF was issuing permits when the president's plans were so well known.
"This makes the directive from the president that much more important," Feinstein said. "It demonstrates the need for the president to move forcefully. It makes a clear case for the suspension to include permits that have already been approved."
An ATF spokesman said Wednesday that his agency is aware of the Treasury Department and White House concerns but disputed that some agents had accelerated approvals.
"At no time did we expedite any application process," said the ATF's Brian Burns.
On Oct. 22, the bureau decided to refrain from approving any new permits while the White House directive was pending and, since then, no permits for modified assault weapon have been granted, the spokesman said.
"We are trying to wait for a definitive course of action before we continue our application process," he said.
Those weapons approved before Oct. 22 were all approved legally, he stressed.
Administration officials, who do not dispute the legality of the action, emphasize that the expedited permits were approved long after agency officials were aware of the president's intentions.
The president, who has been focused on other issues--such as his failed effort to win congressional approval of "fast-track" trade legislation--has not yet made his final decision on the scope of the temporary ban, administration officials said.
The officials added, however, that Clinton's advisors now are leaning toward expanding the ban to include not only new applications for permits but also weapons that already have been approved for importation.
Complicating the president's decision-making process is the fervent opposition of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Assn. The president's ban, although based on the 1968 Gun Control Act, almost certainly would be challenged in court.
The 1968 law makes it illegal to import any firearm unless it is "generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes."