Jus­tice blocked Mex­i­can gun-smuggling probe on Hill

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JERRY SEPER

The Jus­tice Depart­ment blocked se­nior ATF lead­ers from co­op­er­at­ing with Congress in its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the “Fast and Fu­ri­ous” weapons op­er­a­tion, or­der­ing them not to re­spond to ques­tions and tak­ing full con­trol of re­ply­ing to brief­ing and doc­u­ment re­quests, the agency’s top boss told con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Ken­neth E. Mel­son, the em­bat­tled acting di­rec­tor of the Bu­reau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives, told Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form in­ves­ti­ga­tors dur­ing a se­cret in­ter­view de­signed to cir­cum­vent Jus­tice Depart­ment at­tor­neys that he was “sick to his stom­ach” when he learned about prob­lems with the con­tro­ver­sial op­er­a­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to a letter to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr., Mr. Mel­son told the panel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors that af­ter he and ATF’s se­nior lead­er­ship team re­as­signed ev­ery man­ager in­volved in Op­er­a­tion Fast and Fu­ri­ous, they were pro­hib­ited from telling Congress about the re­as­sign­ments.

Mr. Mel­son was se­cretly in­ter­viewed July 4 by in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the two com­mit­tees, who have been look­ing into ac­cu­sa­tions that ATF al­lowed the sale of thou­sands of weapons to “straw buy­ers” in Ari­zona and Texas that later were “walked” unchecked to drug smug­glers in Mex­ico.

At least three of those weapons, in­clud­ing two AK-47 as­sault ri­fles, later were dis­cov­ered at two sites where U.S. law en­force­ment of­fi­cials were slain. U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment Agent Jaime Za­p­ata was killed in a day­light am­bush on a ma­jor Mex­i­can high­way, and U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol Agent Brian A. Terry died in a shoot­ing with ban­dits just north of the Ari­zona-Mex­ico bor­der.

Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley of Iowa, rank­ing Repub­li­can on the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, and Rep. Dar­rell Issa, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can and chair­man of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee, have un­suc­cess­fully sought in­for­ma­tion on the Fast and Fu­ri­ous op­er­a­tion over the past sev­eral months.

Part of ATF’s “Pro­ject Gun­run­ner,” Op­er­a­tion Fast and Fu­ri­ous was highly touted by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. With pres­sure mount­ing from the Jus­tice Depart­ment and the White House, Mr. Mel­son has re­sisted ef­forts to re­sign or be fired.

Mr. Mel­son orig­i­nally had been sched­uled by the Jus­tice Depart­ment to be in­ter­viewed July 13, with at­tor­neys from both the depart­ment and ATF present. In­stead, he opted to ap­pear be­fore the in­ves­ti­ga­tors in a vol­un­tary in­ter­view Mon­day with his per­sonal at­tor­ney, Richard Cullen.

In the July 5 letter to Mr. Holder, Mr. Grass­ley and Mr. Issa said they were “dis­ap­pointed” that the Jus­tice Depart­ment failed to tell Mr. Mel­son he had the right to choose a vol­un­tary in­ter­view rather than par­tic­i­pate with coun­sel rep­re­sent­ing the depart­ment’s in­ter­ests.

The two Repub­li­can lawmakers ac­cused the Jus­tice Depart­ment of seek­ing to “limit and con­trol his com­mu­ni­ca­tions with Congress.”

The lawmakers ac­cused the depart­ment of “muz­zling” Mr. Mel­son and en­cour­aged Mr. Holder not to re­tal­i­ate against the di­rec­tor, de­scrib­ing as “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” any ef­fort to make him the “fall guy in an at­tempt to pre­vent fur­ther con­gres­sional over­sight.”

Mr. Mel­son also told the in­ves­ti­ga­tors that some of the sus­pected gun traf­fick­ers tar­geted by ATF in the Fast and Fu­ri­ous probe may ac­tu­ally have been in­for­mants for the FBI and the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion (DEA) — with­out ATF’s knowl­edge.

“We have very real in­di­ca­tions from sev­eral sources that some of the gun-traf­fick­ing ‘higher-ups’ that the ATF sought to iden­tify were al­ready known to other agen­cies and may even have been paid as in­for­mants,” Mr. Grass­ley and Mr. Issa wrote. “The acting di­rec­tor said ATF was kept in the dark about cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties of other agen­cies, in­clud­ing DEA and FBI.”

The lawmakers said Mr. Mel­son learned from ATF field agents that in­for­ma­tion ob­tained by these agen­cies could have had a ma­te­rial im­pact on the Op­er­a­tion Fast and Fu­ri­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Mr. Mel­son also con­firmed con­cerns ex­pressed by sev­eral ATF agents dur­ing their re­cent tes­ti­mony be­fore Mr. Issa’s com­mit­tee that while they wit­nessed the trans­fer of weapons from the straw buy­ers to oth­ers, they were not al­lowed to fol­low the guns fur­ther as they made their way to Mex­ico.

He told the in­ves­ti­ga­tors, ac­cord­ing to the letter, that he be­came aware of “this star­tling pos­si­bil­ity only af­ter the mur­der of Bor­der Pa­trol Agent Brian Terry and the in­dict­ments of the straw pur­chasers, which we now know were sub­stan­tially de­layed by the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice and Main Jus­tice.”

“It is one thing to ar­gue that the ends jus­tify the means in an at­tempt to de­fend a pol­icy that puts build­ing a big case ahead of stop­ping known crim­i­nals from get­ting guns,” Mr. Grass­ley and Mr. Issa wrote. “Yet it is a much more se­ri­ous mat­ter to con­ceal from Congress the pos­si­ble in­volve­ment of other agen­cies in iden­ti­fy­ing and maybe even work­ing with the same crim­i­nals that Op­er­a­tion Fast and Fu­ri­ous was try­ing to iden­tify.

“If this in­for­ma­tion is ac­cu­rate, then the whole mis­guided op­er­a­tion might have been cut short if not for cat­a­strophic fail- ures to share key in­for­ma­tion,” they said.

The Feb. 15 shoot­ing of Za­p­ata was the sec­ond time authorities dis­cov­ered that at least one of the weapons found at the killing site was trace­able to a suspect un­der sur­veil­lance by the ATF. Two of the weapons found at the site of the Dec. 15 killing of Terry were traced to straw buy­ers in Ari­zona who had “walked” the guns to Mex­i­can drug smug­glers.

Mr. Holder has asked the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s of­fice of in­spec­tor gen­eral to in­ves­ti­gate the mat­ter.

In a re­sponse letter to Mr. Grass­ley and Mr. Issa on July 4, As­sis­tant At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ron­ald We­ich said the Jus­tice Depart­ment “in no way sought to limit [. . . ] ap­pro­pri­ate ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion con­cern­ing Op­er­a­tion Fast and Fu­ri­ous.”

Like Congress, he said, the Jus­tice Depart­ment “is deeply in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing the facts” sur­round­ing the op­er­a­tion and had as­signed “dozens of at­tor­neys and re­view­ers to work on the com­mit­tee’s ex­tremely broad re­quests for in­for­ma­tion.”

Mr. We­ich also said the Jus­tice Depart­ment was “puz­zled” by crit­i­cism that it had failed to pro­duce doc­u­ments and make wit­nesses avail­able, not­ing that more than 2,000 pages of doc­u­ments had been pro­duced to the com­mit­tee or made avail­able for re­view.

He said the lawmakers’ letter “un­fairly crit­i­cizes both the depart­ment’s ef­forts to ad­dress the com­mit­tee’s con­cerns and the in­tegrity of the pro­fes­sion­als at the depart­ment who worked long hours to make re­spon­sive in­for­ma­tion avail­able to you.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Bu­reau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives’ acting Di­rec­tor Ken­neth Mel­son

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