Operation Fast and Furious: Firearms Bureau Chief Is Out After Disputed Inquiry
The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) chief has been ousted due to Operation Fast and Furious which put guns in the hand of Mexican drug cartels – and not a minute too soon.
The bad news is that we will still see more repercussions of the irreparabledamage the gun operation has caused.
The good news – if any – is that public outrage was fast and it was furious. Another reason why we must keep at it. – Axel
Via NY Times
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday replaced two top Justice Department officials associated with Operation Fast and Furious, an ill-fated investigation into a gun-trafficking ring in Arizona, reassigning the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and announcing the resignation of the United States attorney in Phoenix.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that he was replacing Kenneth Melson, the acting A.T.F. chief, with B. Todd Jones, the United States attorney in Minnesota. He also announced that Dennis Burke, the top federal prosecutor in Arizona, was stepping down, making them the highest-profile causalities yet in the disputed effort to dismantle a gun-trafficking network that was funneling assault weapons to a Mexican drug cartel.
Mr. Holder did not directly address Operation Fast and Furious, but a Justice Department official said that he made the moves — which had been developing for weeks — for management reasons. Mr. Holder indirectly referred to the distraction of the controversy in his statement thanking Mr. Burke, commending “his decision to place the interests of the U.S. Attorney’s office above all else.”
The changes were part of a larger set of moves that have swept away officials associated with the star-crossed operation in recent weeks. In addition, two former top A.T.F. officials in Phoenix, William Newell and William McMahon, received lateral transfers to positions at the Justice Department in Washington. In addition, last week, Emory Hurley, an assistant United States attorney in Phoenix who worked closely on the operation, was transferred from the office’s criminal division to its civil division.
But Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, vowed to continue his investigation of the program, which he has said was seriously flawed. Mr. Issa has held a series of hearings on the program over the past year, and has repeatedly sought to link high-level Obama administration officials to the operation, although no evidence has yet emerged that they knew about its details.
“While the reckless disregard for safety that took place in Operation Fast and Furious certainly merits changes within the Department of Justice, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee will continue its investigation to ensure that blame isn’t offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department,” Mr. Issa said.
Operation Fast and Furious, which ran from late 2009 to early 2011, was part of a still-open larger investigation into a large gun-trafficking ring in Arizona linked to drug cartels in Mexico, where consumers are not allowed to buy military-style assault weapons like a variant of the AK-47.
The operation was built around the tactic of monitoring suspected “straw purchasers” who were buying weapons at American gun stores on behalf of the smuggling network, rather than quickly moving to arrest the buyers and seize the guns. The hope was that by keeping the buyers under surveillance, they would lead investigators to higher-ups in the ring.
That tactic, however, prompted internal controversy within the firearms bureau, where agents traditionally move whenever they can to remove guns from the street. Investigators ultimately lost track of many of the roughly 2,000 guns linked to suspected straw buyers associated with the ring. Some of the weapons were later recovered at crime scenes inside Mexico, and two were found at the site where a United States Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed.
Earlier this year, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, began asking questions about the operation after A.T.F. agents contacted his office. He eventually linked up with Mr. Issa — who wields subpoena power as a committee chairman, and who has since made the operation a centerpiece of his oversight efforts of the administration.
Separately, Mr. Holder asked the Justice Department’s office of the inspector general to examine the operation. That investigation continues as well.
Mr. Obama had appointed Mr. Burke in 2009. He was formerly an aide to Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, when she was governor of Arizona. He has had political ambitions of his own and was considered a rising Democratic star in a state run by Republicans.
Mr. Burke had met privately with Congressional investigators earlier this month. In an e-mail to his staff, he did not mention Operation Fast and Furious, but hinted at the troubles: “For me, it is the right time to move on to pursue other aspects of my career and my life and allow the office to move ahead.”
Mr. Burke’s first assistant, Ann Scheel, will serve as the acting United States attorney in Arizona for now, the department said. Mr. Holder said that Mr. Jones would stay on in his position as Untied States attorney in Minnesota in addition to his duties as the new acting director of A.T.F.
“I know it’s been a challenging time for this agency, and for many of you,” Mr. Jones wrote in an e-mail to A.T.F. staff on Tuesday. “As we move forward, we face a more important challenge than what’s been going on outside of A.T.F. these last several months — what’s going on inside A.T.F. We have important work to do and that is what I want you to focus on — and what I will be focused on in the coming months.”
Mr. Melson, meanwhile, has been transferred to a relatively low-profile position as a “senior advisor” for forensic science issues at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. Its statement noted that he is a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and has taught law and forensic sciences courses at George Washington University for nearly 30 years.