Rep. Issa gets his first scalp

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) won his first major investigative victory on Tuesday as two of the top federal officials involved with a flawed gun-tracking operation stepped down from office.

Along with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Issa has doggedly pursued the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives for the past five months, issuing scores of subpoenas, interviewing dozens of government officials and publicly lambasting President Obama for not being more forthcoming about the “Fast and Furious” operation.

On Tuesday, the DOJ handed Issa a victory, announcing that acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson, who has led the agency since 2009, was being replaced and transferred to the Office of Legal Policy. The news came in conjunction with a separate announcement that the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, was resigning. Burke oversaw the legal aspects of “Fast and Furious,” providing advice to agents involved.

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Brian Darling, a senior fellow in government studies at the Heritage Foundation, said the moves are a clear victory for Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who has pledged to continue his investigation until a full picture of the operation and its authorizers is painted.

“There’s a long way to go to get to the bottom of the Fast and Furious scandal, but at least the Issa committee can say that they’ve uncovered enough information that has started the process of understanding everything that’s happened and having people removed who may have done wrong,” said Darling, who has served as counsel to former Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Bob Smith (R-N.H.).

When Republicans took control of the House this year, they were excited about the thought that Issa would have subpoena powers to go after the Obama administration. Answering their call, the six-term lawmaker announced a laundry list of issues he planned to have his powerful committee look into.

But after six months of probes, ranging from the Department of Homeland Security’s Freedom of Information Act process to “Fast and Furious,” Issa had yet to find an issue that stuck beyond soundbites and flash headlines, on which his press team has worked tirelessly.

In the midst of his flailing investigations, Issa had the spotlight turned uncomfortably on himself when he was forced to fire his spokesman, Kurt Bardella, who had been described as Issa’s “Mini-Me,” after Bardella shared reporters’ emails with a writer for The New York Times.

Even Issa recognized that his chairmanship was not going as he had envisioned it.

“I’m a brand-new chairman; this is a brand-new majority,” Issa said two months ago at a markup of the committee’s six-month advisory report. “We didn’t do as well as we could have. We want to do better.”

Critics used the lack of an end result in his “Fast and Furious” investigation to question Issa’s effectiveness as chairman, saying he should wait for the Department of Justice’s inspector general to complete its own investigation, which was launched in March and is still ongoing.

But Tuesday’s announcement signaled a major victory for Issa, who expressed his concern that Melson and Burke not be made to take the fall for others in DOJ who may be responsible for the operation. While no hearings have been formally announced for when Congress returns in two weeks, they are expected.

“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,” Issa in a news release.

Both Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have said they did not approve the operation, but have declined to comment further, citing a pending investigation by DOJ’s inspector general.

Lending credence to Issa’s suspicions that there are more officials responsible for the operation is testimony that Melson delivered to Issa and Grassley’s staff in secret during the July 4th holiday.

Melson said he was never briefed about the details of the operation and that “the general assumption among the people that were briefed on this case was that this was like any other case that ATF has done,” according to testimony provided by the committee’s Democrats.

Melson said he wished the agents who identified problems with the operation had made contact with him directly, because the supervisors they told never did. As a last resort, the agents reached out to Grassley, who launched his own probe into the matter, only to be stonewalled by the DOJ because he is in the minority and the administration only has to turn over information to the majority party.

Shortly after Melson’s interview, Issa backed away from his earlier calls for Melson’s resignation.

“Operation Fast and Furious” was launched in 2009 to sell firearms to known and suspected straw purchasers for Mexican drug cartels with the goal of tracking the guns and dismantling the gun-trafficking routes.

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 of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry last December to the operation. According to testimony, they are terrified that some of the thousands of guns still at large will be used to kill more innocent people.