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.
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?
"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.
In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Issa said Melson's departure was appropriate, but the congressman also praised Melson's willingness to tell Congress that his Justice Department superiors "were doing more damage control than anything," a revelation that has fueled the probe.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee isn't content with Justice's personnel moves. The committee's investigation will continue “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, the chairman of the committee, told The Wall Street Journal.
The investigation is slated to pick up once Congress returns from its summer break next week. Issa has requested a meeting with Mr. Holder upon his return to Washington.
"I do think we need to work jointly to get this investigation wrapped up with some satisfactory conclusions that we are not heading toward right now," Issa told Fox News. "We know we are being gamed and we think the time for the game should be up."
Melson's resignation, critics say, is a sign that the Fast and Furious scandal has begun to affect public perception of the Department of Justice and of Mr. Holder, who has been a constant target of Republican attacks since shortly after he took over at Justice. In July, Rep. Allen West, a tea party Republican from Florida, demanded Holder's resignation in wake of the Fast and Furious controversy.
"In an administration that's been plagued by failure, this is a singularly dramatic initiative failure," says Don Kates, a fellow with the Independent Institute, a libertarian think tank in Oakland, Calif. "Clearly they were not able to trace these guns, and the result has been a catastrophe in general and a catastrophe for the reputation of the Justice Department."
But while Grassley and Issa have heard testimony that some higher-ups in the Justice Department had knowledge about Operation Fast and Furious, it would be be unorthodox, but not impossible, for operational strategies to be handed to the ATF from above the agency's director, government experts say. Both Obama and Holder have denied having any knowledge of the program until after the murder of Agent Terry near Nogales, Ariz., in December.
In testimony earlier this summer, ATF Acting Deputy Director William Hoover told Congress that there was no reason for Justice officials to be aware of the tactics, "because I certainly didn't brief them on the techniques being employed in Fast and Furious."
While the investigation could still claim more political victims, it's far from clear whether a scandal that involves the US government making mistakes while trying to stop cross-border arms flow will hurt the White House.
"There's not going to be the kind of, 'Holy Moses, the government is letting us down,' as there was with Katrina," says Terry Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of North carolina, in Chapel Hill.