Private memo reveals winding tale involving John McCain, the NRA and … condors

Nancy Watzman,  Sunlight Foundation

On July 30, 2013, Sen. John McCain placed a call to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) asking to speak to acting director B. Todd Jones. McCain wanted to talk about condors.

Jones didn’t come to the phone, in spite of — or maybe because of — the fact that his nomination of the besieged agency was coming for a vote before the Senate the following day. McCain was a key player: He had helped broker a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to end the filibusters that had stymied so many Obama administration nominations.

McCain spoke to Jones’ chief of staff. The senator’s request? That Jones come to an Arizona summit the following month on the state’s program to protect the endangered bird.

Why would McCain take the step of calling Jones at such a sensitive time to talk about, of all things, birds? Why did he think that Jones’ participation in this particular meeting was so crucial?

Sunlight found the record of the telephone call placed by McCain to the ATF, which has not been public before, among thousands of pages of documents we received from the ATF via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which we analyzed with the help of Overview, an open source tool that allows journalists to find themes in large sets of documents.

A McCain staffer says the senator’s motivation came from a long-held desire to save the birds and to promote Arizona’s program that encourages hunters to give up lead ammunition, which has been tied to condor deaths. The state’s voluntary program is in lieu of a legal ban on lead ammunition.

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