The acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is leaving his post after months of controversy over “Operation Fast and Furious’’ gunrunning debacle that put assault rifles in the hands of Mexican drug dealers.
The apparent shake-up has been simmering for months, amid Republican allegations that higher-ups in the Department of Justice should be held accountable for the scandal, in which the weapons ended up at crime scenes, including murders.
Acting Director Kenneth Melson will become senior adviser to the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy, the ATF announced today. Melson has been a flash point in the investigation of the Fast and Furious program and Project Gunrunner.
Under the programs designed to track illegal gun purchases, about 1,400 weapons were sold to straw buyers and funneled to drug cartels.
However, ATF lost track of many of the weapons, which have been used in at least 12 crimes in the United States and dozens more in Mexico. Two weapons found in Arizona at the scene of the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry were part of Project Gunrunner. U.S. Immigration officer Jaime Zapata was killed in Mexico with guns bought under the scheme.
In a related development, Phoenix U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, who worked with the ATF on the operation, has resigned. And in still more fallout, Emory Hurley, an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix who helped oversee Fast and Furious, is being moved out of the criminal division to the civil division.
This follows the transfer of three agents heavily involved in the scheme from the ATF’s Arizona field office to Washington, D.C.
Republicans in both the House and the Senate have been keen to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious, with Rep. Darrrell Issa of California and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa leading the investigation. They are probing not only the program but also how informed higher-ups were about it, including Attorney General Eric Holder.
The two publicly warned Holder not to fire Melson after the acting director gave evidence to their staffers on July 4.
In a statement after the announcement of Melson’s departure, Issa said, “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.
“There are still many questions to be answered about what happened in Operation Fast and Furious and who else bears responsibility, but these changes are warranted and offer an opportunity for the Justice Department to explain the role other officials and offices played in the infamous efforts to allow weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels.”
Similarly, Grassley issued a statement saying: “Today’s announcement is an admission by the Obama administration that serious mistakes were made in Operation Fast and Furious, and is a step in the right direction that they are continuing to limit any further damage that people involved in this disastrous strategy can do.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around. As our investigation moves forward, and we get to the bottom of this policy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more fall out beyond the resignations and new assignments announced today.
“The Justice Department and the ATF have yet to answer a majority of the questions and still must produce many of the documents Congressman Issa and I have asked for. We’re looking for a full accounting from the Justice Department as to who knew what and when, so we can be sure that this ill-advised strategy never happens again.”
Despite the controversy, Holder praised Melson, who was appointed acting ATF director in 2009 but now will specialize in forensic science policy issues at the Department of Justice.
“Ken brings decades of experience at the department and extensive knowledge in forensic science to his new role and I know he will be a valuable contributor on these issues,” Holder said in a statement. “As he moves into this new role, I want to thank Ken for his dedication to the department over the last three decades.”
The Justice Department also announced that B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, will replace Melson at the ATF.
“ATF employees are hardworking and dedicated to the mission of protecting the public every day, and in my time here I have seen firsthand their extraordinary commitment to stopping violent crime,” Melson said in the announcement. “I will miss working with them, but know that my continued work at the Department will contribute in their pursuit and prosecution of violent criminals.”
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