By Jordy Yager - 08/30/11 07:46 PM EDT
The head of the ATF has been removed after months of speculation about his role in a botched gun-tracking operation that could have contributed to the death of a Border Patrol agent.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Tuesday that acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Kenneth Melson was being replaced. Melson is being transferred to the Office of Legal Policy, where he will be a senior adviser.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota Todd Jones will take over as acting ATF director, according to the Department of Justice.
In a simultaneous move, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, announced his resignation on Tuesday. Burke oversaw the legal aspects of the Fast and Furious operation, providing advice to agents involved.
Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called for Melson’s resignation in June; two weeks later he backed away from those demands when Melson came to Capitol Hill during the July 4 holiday with his own personal lawyer to conduct a transcribed interview with Issa and Grassley’s staff.
Melson's reassignment and Burke's resignation represent the first major investigative victory for Issa, who said he would continue to probe Justice and its botched gun-tracking operation.
“While the reckless disregard for safety that took place in Operation Fast and Furious certainly merits changes within the Department of Justice, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee will continue its investigation to ensure that blame isn’t offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department,” Issa said in a statement.
“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.”
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Grassley said the administration's announcement represented an admission that "serious mistakes were made" and was a step in the right direction. In a statement, he added that there's blame to go around.
"I wouldn’t be surprised to see more fall out beyond the resignations and new assignments announced today," Grassley said.
Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned that Melson could be taking the fall for the incompetent decisions of others, and that Congress needs to probe further into the matter to identify and hold responsible any remaining key players.
“This move by the administration indicates that Director Melson may be being used as a scapegoat for a much larger problem within ATF and DOJ,” said Smith in a statement.
“It appears that other senior officials at DOJ may have been involved in this deadly operation. The American people and Congress will not be appeased until we have the whole truth about how and why Operation Fast and Furious was authorized. Congress will not ignore an agency so out of control that its decisions and operations cost American lives.”
The Fast and Furious operation came under congressional scrutiny after whistleblowers within the ATF brought it to Grassley’s attention. ATF agents said they were told to monitor the sale of thousands of guns in the Southwest with the hope of tracking them back to Mexican drug cartels and dismantling their trafficking networks.
But agents were often told to abandon surveillance of the weapons, allowing them — and the straw buyers — to disappear, according to testimony from numerous agents before the House. The only remaining hope for agents to track the guns was if other agencies found them at a murder scene or during a drug raid and identified them by the serial numbers on the guns.
Officials linked two weapons found at the Arizona murder scene last December of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry — according to testimony, they are terrified that some of the thousands of guns still at large will be used to kill more innocent people.
Melson has never been implicitly indicated as approving the tactic of letting the guns “walk,” but Issa has argued that as the head of the agency, he should have been aware of the operation.
Attorney General Eric Holder heralded the promotion of Jones, saying he will provide the ATF with the necessary leadership to strengthen the agency.
“As a seasoned prosecutor and former military judge advocate, U.S. Attorney Jones is a demonstrated leader who brings a wealth of experience to this position,” Holder said.
“I have great confidence that he will be a strong and steady influence guiding ATF in fulfilling its mission of combating violent crime by enforcing federal criminal laws and regulations in the firearms and explosives industries.”
He also lauded Burke’s career, focusing on his role in bringing the alleged shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) to justice. Giffords was shot in the head in January while speaking publicly at a shopping center.
“The office’s quick response to the devastating shootings in January that claimed the lives of several people and critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was crucial in arresting and charging the alleged shooter,” said Holder in a statement.
The DOJ inspector general is conducting its own investigation of the operation. Both Holder and President Obama have declined to comment in any detail about the program until the investigation is completed.
—This story was posted at 12:29 and last updated at 3:46 p.m.