ATF Shake-Up Comes Fast and Furious

An AR15 semi-automatic rifle and ammo is shown during the presentation of Gilberto Barragan Balderas, one of the ten most wanted drug dealers by the US Department of State.

Ken Melson, the man who oversaw the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives during the controversial “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking operation is leaving ATF and returning to Justice Department headquarters.

Two other top officials involved in the “ Fast and Furious” operation resigned or were reassigned, the department announced today.

 Melson headed the ATF when the bureau ran the botched gun-running investigation in Arizona which resulted in hundreds of guns ending up in Mexico and some firearms going to drug cartels.  Guns from the program have also been traced to a series of crimes in Arizona.

The Department also announced  today that Dennis Burke, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona where operation Fast and Furious was overseen, was resigning. Additionally the assistant U.S. attorney who helped run the program, Emory Hurley, has been reassigned from working on criminal cases and will now work in the civil division at the Arizona U.S. attorney’s office.

Read more about the “Fast and Furious” gun tracking program.

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.

A Congressional investigation into the program has revealed numerous short-comings and poor oversight of the program, which was overseen by the ATF field office in Phoenix and the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona. It is unclear what senior officials at Justice Department headquarters knew about the program or if they were familer with the details of the program.

According to administration officials, Attorney General Eric Holder pushed for the personnel moves to provide stable leadership at ATF. Holder has pushed for the department’s inspector general to review the “Fast and Furious” program, but the status of that review is unknown.

Last month, appearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the former head of the ATF’s Phoenix office admitted that mistakes were made in the controversial gun trafficking operation. William Newell, the ATF agent who helped oversee the operation told the committee, “I recognize that in retrospect there were mistakes made in how we handled this investigation.”

The committee has requested numerous documents and testimony from ATF agents and Department of Justice officials as they looked into the operation.

Melson in July took the unusual step of hiring his own attorney and agreed to testify before the committee over the July 4 holiday weekend so he could provide his own testimony without other DOJ officials present. During his interview with the committee Melson called DOJ’s response to the congressional inquiry “a disaster.”

Melson also alleged that DOJ headquarters was trying to deflect attention away from the political appointees telling the oversight committee, “It was very frustrating to all of us, and it appears thoroughly to us that the department is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the department.”

The ATF has been without a confirmed director since 2006 due to political opposition and pressure from gun-rights group.

In a statement Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Rep. Darrell Issa said, “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.  I also remain very concerned by Acting Director Melson’s statement that the Department of Justice is managing its response in a manner intended to protect its political appointees.”

Melson will now serve as a senior advisor to the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy focusing on forensic science policy. According to ATF officials the post is in Melson’s area of interest since he had served as a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.