Issa, Grassley: DOJ Obstructed Mexican Guns Probe

Wednesday, 06 Jul 2011 01:20 PM

By Martin Gould and Abigail Walls

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The top man in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has turned sensationally against his Department of Justice bosses saying they were trying to stymie an investigation into the Operation Fast and Furious scandal.

Melson, fast and furious, gunrunner, ATF
Kenneth Melson told Congress in a secret deposition that the Justice Department falsely leaked stories to the press that he was about to resign over Fast and Furious, Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley say. (Associated Press Photo)
Kenneth Melson, acting director of the ATF, gave a secret deposition to Congress on July 4, it was revealed today. He took his own lawyer instead of relying on one from the ATF.

The stunning move will increase pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to resign over the operation that saw some 2,000 guns sold to straw buyers who then sold them to Mexican drug cartel leaders.

But Fast and Furious and its sister plan, Project Gunrunner, went disastrously wrong, and 80 percent of the weapons went missing. Two were found at the Arizona site where Border Agent Brian Terry was killed in December.

Republicans leading the investigation in both the House and Senate wrote a stinging letter to Holder yesterday informing him of Melson’s move, calling it “extremely helpful to our investigation.”

Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley wrote, “He was candid in admitting mistakes that his agency made and described various ways he says that he tried to remedy the problems.”

Issa and Grassley said Melson claimed that ATF’s senior leadership would have preferred to be more cooperative with the congressional probe.

“However, he said that Justice Department officials directed them not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress. The result is that Congress only got the parts of the story that the Department wanted us to hear,” they wrote.

“If his account is accurate, then ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DoJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand.”

Issa and Grassley also said that Melson claimed that the Justice Department falsely leaked stories to the press that he was about to resign over Fast and Furious. They warned Holder against firing him now. “It would be inappropriate for the Justice Department to take action against him that could have the effect of intimidating others who might want to provide additional information to the Committees.

“Knowing what we know so far, we believe it would be inappropriate to make Mr. Melson the fall guy in an attempt to prevent further congressional oversight,” they concluded.

Just last week, Iowa Sen. Grassley told Newsmax.TV that he did not want to see Melson quit because one resignation would make it seem like the matter was over. “There are too many people involved in it for me to be satisfied with one resignation,” he said at the time.

In their letter Grassley and California’s Issa said Melson had been scheduled to give evidence on July 13 but brought the date forward when he realized he could take his own lawyer, Richard Cullen.

“We are disappointed that no one had previously informed him of that provision of the agreement,” the two GOP members wrote.

“Instead, Justice Department officials sought to limit and control his communications with Congress. This is yet another example of why direct communications with Congress are so important and are protected by law.”

The release of the letter came on the same day that Mexican officials said that any officer accused of supplying guns to the cartels should be tried in Mexico.

“I feel my country's sovereignty was violated," Sen. Rene Arce Islas, the chairman of Mexico's Commission for National Security, told Fox News. "They should be tried in the United States, and the Mexican government should also demand that they also be tried in Mexico since the incidents took place here. There should be trials in both places."

Operation Fast and Furious came to a head on Dec. 14, when Terry was killed in a scuffle along a smuggling route close to the Mexican border, and assault rifles found at the murder scene were traced back to Jaime Avila, who had bought them from a Phoenix gun shop.

Avila had been allowed to buy the assault weapons even though the ATF suspected he would sell them to the drug cartels. The plan was to trace the guns, with the hope of leading ATF agents to the drug kingpins.

Even before Terry’s murder, ATF agents and senior managers had expressed fierce opposition to the policy. One agent called the strategy "insane."

Another said, "We were fully aware the guns would probably be moved across the border to drug cartels where they could be used to kill."

For months, ATF agents followed 50-caliber Barrett rifles and other guns believed headed for the Mexican border but were ordered to let these highly dangerous weapons go.

CBS reports that one distraught agent often was overheard on ATF radios begging and pleading to be allowed to intercept transports. The answer: "Negative. Stand down."

The Department of Justice, which oversees the ATF, claimed in a letter that the agency never knowingly permitted the sale of assault weapons to suspected gunrunners.

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