Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives acting Director Kenneth Melson is facing pressure to resign over a poorly run gun-trafficking operation blamed for putting weapons in the hands of a border agent's killers.
One of the three ATF agents who blew the whistle on the program, dubbed "Fast and Furious," told a Congressional committee hearing last week that rather than shutting down the illegal gun trade to drug cartels, the operation helped arm them.
"ATF is supposed to be the sheepdog that protects against the wolves that prey upon our southern border," ATF Agent John Dodson said. "Rather than meet the wolf head-on, we sharpened its teeth and added number to its claws, all the while we sat idly by -- watching, tracking and noting as it became a more efficient killer."
Under "Fast and Furious," ATF agents recorded and tracked straw purchases of weapons and allowed the guns to "walk" across the U.S. border into Mexico in an effort to locate major weapons traffickers, rather than catching the low-level buyers.
The operation took a tragic toll when two weapons found on the scene where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered were linked to the ATF program.
Melson has been acting director of ATF since April 2009. Before that he oversaw the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys and was a long-time career prosecutor in Eastern District of Virginia.
Reports that Melson may be forced to resign were first reported today by the Wall Street Journal.
The ATF agents testified they had serious reservations about orders not to arrest known straw purchasers, even though the guns were going to drug cartels, and to stop monitoring individuals who had illegally purchased high powered rifles including AK-47s and .50 caliber rifles. Heavily armed drug cartels have been blamed for the killings of more than 34,000 people in Mexico since 2006.
"Allowing firearms to be trafficked to criminals is a dangerous and deadly strategy," ATF Agent Peter Forcelli told Congress. "The thought that the techniques used in the 'Fast and Furious' investigation would result in 'taking down a cartel' given the toothless nature of the 'straw purchasing law' and the lack of a 'firearms trafficking statute' is, in my opinion, delusional."
Documents released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at the hearing last week showed that Melson and other top ATF officials were briefed regularly on the program.
Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., expressed his doubts about Melson's management and said the acting director had asked to watch live feeds of some gun purchases on his computer.
"Mr. Melson was interested even in receiving the I.P. [internet protocol] address for hidden cameras located inside cooperating gun shops," Issa said. "With this information, Acting Director Melson was able to sit at his desk in Washington and himself watch a live feed of straw buyers entering the gun stores and purchasing dozens of AK-47 variants."
A report released by Issa's committee "Fast and Furious" noted testimony and accounts from ATF agents where they expressed their concern. One comment revealed a sense of panic when Rep. Gabriele Giffords was shot, one ATF agent told congressional investigators, "With Ms. Giffords' shooting, there was a state of panic, like, oh, God, let's hope this is not a weapon from that case."
ATF officials say they were trying to build cases that would allow them to target senior drug cartel leaders and key weapons traffickers, not low-level gun runners. The report focused on dissent and problems among ATF agents about the operation and guidance on when they should interdict the illegal firearms.
In November 2010, President Obama nominated Andrew Traver, the agent in charge of the ATF's Chicago office, to head the ATF, but the nomination has been held up in the Senate after the National Rifle Association spoke out against him.
The ATF has been without a confirmed director since 2006 due to political opposition and pressure from gun-rights group.
"Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting Director Kenneth Melson continues to be focused on leading ATF in its efforts to reduce violent crime and to stem the flow of firearms to criminals and criminal organizations," ATF spokesman Scot Thomasson said in a statement released today. "We are not going to comment on any speculations."