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More Fallout Expected Over Botched Gun Sting More Fallout Expected Over Botched Gun Sting

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National Security / National Security

More Fallout Expected Over Botched Gun Sting

photo of Chris Strohm
August 30, 2011

The botched sting operation known as Operation Fast And Furious has claimed the careers of at least three Justice Department officials, with Republican lawmakers expecting even more fallout to come.

The operation, run out of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives field office in Phoenix, allowed guns to knowingly fall into the hands of violent criminals in Mexico.

A congressional investigation into the operation led by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Senate Judiciary ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is examining how high up within the administration the program was known about and authorized.

 
The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that Kenneth Melson, the acting head of the ATF bureau will be reassigned, and that Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for the district of Arizona, is resigning.

In another change, the assistant U.S. attorney responsible for the day-to-day operations of Fast and Furious — Emory Hurley — has been removed from his post and reassigned to the department’s civil division, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Justice Department did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

Fast and Furious has since been halted and is under investigation by lawmakers and the Justice Department’s inspector general for failing to stop guns from flowing into Mexico.

“As our investigation moves forward, and we get to the bottom of this policy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more fallout beyond the resignations and new assignments announced today,” Grassley said in a statement.

Issa added: “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.”

Areas the congressional investigation will now focus on include who within the Justice Department reviewed and authorized wiretap applications in support of the operation, and whether other agencies had informants who knew that weapons were being bought illegally by straw purchasers, said Frederick Hill, spokesman for the House Oversight panel. Investigators are also still trying to determine when Attorney General Eric Holder first learned about the operation.

The Justice Department also has not turned over all documents the committee is seeking under a subpoena, Hill said, adding that the panel plans to hold more hearings on the operation.

Melson’s fate may have been sealed when he voluntarily met behind closed doors with congressional investigators on July 4. Melson told the committee he did not learn about the operation until it became public late last year, according to Issa and Grassley. Melson said he and other ATF leaders wanted to be forthcoming with Congress about what he learned but were directed by Justice Department officials not to do so.

Congressional investigators met with Burke on Aug. 18 and expect to soon have another meeting, Hill said. Hill declined to discuss Burke’s testimony but said Operation Fast and Furious was designated as a strike team which was led directly by Burke. ATF agents have previously told the committee that they wanted to stop the illegal transfer of guns but were directed not to.

Burke told the committee he knew about Operation Fast and Furious but had been unaware of the details, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., top Democrat on the House Oversight panel. But Burke said he still would take responsibility for mistakes made, according to a partial transcript of his interview released by Cummings’ office.

Holder announced the resignation of Burke and the reassignment of Melson, praising them for their service. He did not mention Operation Fast and Furious.

U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota B. Todd Jones has been appointed to replace Melson as acting ATF head. Jones has served as U.S. attorney for the district of Minnesota under two presidents. He has previously been a partner at private law firms and, in 2009, was appointed to serve as chairman of the Attorney General Advisory Committee.

 

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