By Corbin Hiar, from the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News.
The fallout from a controversial federal operation that allowed weapons to be smuggled into Mexico dramatically intensified Tuesday with the reassignment of the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the resignation of the Phoenix U.S. attorney who oversaw the operation.
Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson, who himself criticized the so-called Fast and Furious investigation for allowing so many weapons to cross the border, will take a less visible job, as senior adviser on forensic science policy issues at the Justice Department.
There was no word on the future of Dennis Burke, who resigned suddenly as U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona. In addition, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, who worked on the case, reportedly was reassigned within the Phoenix federal prosecutor’s office.
Melson will be replaced as acting ATF director by B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota and the chair of the Attorney General Advisory Committee, which counsels Attorney General Eric Holder on policy, management, and operational issues. Jones will continue to serve as a U.S. attorney even after he becomes the ATF acting director on Wednesday, the Justice Department said.
Melson, a former U.S. attorney and Justice Department official, took over as acting director in April 2009.
The Fast and Furious operation has been the source of turmoil since it was revealed earlier this year that ATF agents spent 15 months watching men suspected of working for a Mexican drug cartel buy firearms at Arizona gun shops, without making arrests. The suspects bought nearly 2,000 firearms, approximately 200 of which were later recovered from crime scenes in Mexico.
ATF hoped the strategy employed in Fast and Furious would allow it to target higher-level cartel operatives, but several of the bureau’s own agents objected to letting guns “walk.” Only after two AK-47 variants bought by one of the suspects turned up at the murder scene of border-patrol agent Brian Terry last December did the Justice Department begin indicting suspects.
For months there had been speculation that Melson would be replaced. On July 4, Melson and Richard Cullen, his personal attorney, met with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to voice concerns about an investigation that Melson thought had taken too long.
Cullen said Tuesday that his client was “treated fairly” and “is very pleased with the move” into forensic science, a subject he has taught as an adjunct professor at George Washington University for nearly 30 years.
The move was not political, according to Melson’s attorney.
“He was the acting director,” Cullen said. He wanted a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed ATF director, “and he knew that wouldn’t be him.”
Mike Bouchard, a former ATF official, said Melson was being forced out without being given a chance to publicly defend himself. Bouchard said because the Fast and Furious investigation is continuing, the Justice Department has been tightlipped about it.
However, Kory Langhofer, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix, said that as the lead agency, ATF has the most control in Fast and Furious. “It’s fair to say that the ATF would have made the overwhelming majority of decisions,” said Langholfer, now a private attorney.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has spearheaded a congressional probe of the Fast and Furious operation along with Grassley, said there still are many unanswered questions about it, and pledged to carry on his inquiry.
“Senator Grassley and I will continue to press the Department of Justice for answers in order to ensure that a reckless effort like Fast and Furious does not take place again,” Issa said in a statement Tuesday.
Melson’s departure raises renewed questions about the status of Andrew Traver, an ATF chief in Chicago who President Barack Obama has nominated to be the permanent director of the bureau. The ATF has not had a permanent director since 2006, when Congress required the consent of the Senate for any appointee.
The National Rifle Association opposes Traver, contending that he is “anti-gun.” The NRA did not immediately respond to questions about Jones, the new acting director.
U.S. Attorney Burke of Arizona, who oversaw the Fast and Furious investigation in Phoenix, previously had served as both an adviser to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and as assistant attorney general for legislative affairs at the Justice Department. He also was a senior policy analyst for the White House Domestic Policy Council during the Clinton administration.
Cullen, Melson’s attorney, said the former acting director had a “passing, casual, friendly relationship” with Burke. They did not work together on the Fast and Furious investigation “in terms of operation detail,” he said.
However, documents indicate Burke was intimately involved in the planning of the operation. In May, congressional investigators released a Fast and Furious briefing paper from the ATF. “Phoenix Special Agent in Charge Newell has repeatedly met with USA Burke regarding the on-going status of this investigation and both are in full agreement with the current investigative strategy,” it said.
Because Burke was a political appointee, not a career ATF employee like Melson, there was nowhere for him to go but out, according to one long-serving former agent.
“U.S. attorneys can make the decision to go into private practice,” said James Cavanaugh, the ex-special agent in charge of the ATF’s Birmingham bureau. “No doubt he’s made that decision, albeit probably with some encouragement from the department.”
Cavanaugh added that he didn’t think either Burke or Melson would have left “if not for Fast and Furious.”
Burke could not be reached for comment.