After ouster of ATF head, where does Fast and Furious probe go now?
ATF acting head Ken Melson stepped down Tuesday amid a probe into the ill-fated Fast and Furious gun tracing program. But Congressional investigators believe there's more blame to go around.
The acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Kenneth Melson took the fall for the ill-conceived Fast and Furious gun tracing program on Tuesday. But his departure is far from a clean break between the Obama administration and an operation that allowed over 2,000 guns to "walk" from US gunshops into the hands of Mexican cartels.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The move, which also included reassigning two other close to the program, is the boldest attempt yet by the Justice Department to distance itself from the potential political fallout of a scheme that some administration critics liken to the 1980s Iran-Contra arms scandal.
But congressional investigators say they have more unanswered questions:
- Are there are other similar "gunwalking" programs in existence?
- What is the extent of involvement by 12 top Justice officials, including three political appointees: Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, and former Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, who now works in US Attorney General Eric Holder's office?
- How were smugglers carrying Fast and Furious arms allowed to resume their travels after being caught in traffic stops?
- What role, if any, did the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) play in the scheme?
IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war
"There’s a lot of blame to go around," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa. "As our investigation moves forward, and we get to the bottom of this policy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more fall out beyond the resignations and new assignments announced today."
The two officials reassigned by the Justice Department were Dennis Burke, the US attorney in Arizona who had been involved with the operation, and another Arizona investigator who was demoted from criminal case work to civil litigation.
So far, the DEA has admitted to playing an "indirect role" in the Fast and Furious gambit, but investigators are asking deeper questions about whether some of the cartel leaders receiving Fast and Furious weapons were paid informants of the DEA and FBI.
The Justice Department, which oversees the ATF, DEA, and FBI, has opened an investigation into the program at President Obama's request.
Mr. Melson led ATF as interim head since 2009, when a plan was hatched to stymie cross-border gun trafficking.
The agency planned to attack the border gun trade with a new strategy: allowing gun dealers along the border to sell guns to known straw buyers who could then be traced to Mexican cartels. The goal was to help the ATF build criminal cases that would hobble the cartels and ease the brutal violence associated with the drug trade.
But as guns went missing and later showed up at violent crime scenes in the US and Mexico – and at the same time prosecutions lagged – resistance to the program began building at lower levels of the ATF.
After two AK-47 rifles found at the scene of US border patrol agent Brian Terry's murder in December were linked to Fast and Furious, ATF whistleblowers contacted Congress. Rep. Darrel Issa (R) of California and Senator Grassley, joined forces to investigate who knew about the program when, and how it was allowed to go forward against the instincts of field agents, who are in the business of confiscating, not trafficking, weapons.