Melson Won't Take the Fall for Fast and Furious

How far up does the gunrunner scandal go?

Whenever a scandal rears its head, there is usually one person who becomes the designated fall guy in order to protect people higher up the chain of responsibility. With respect to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) operation known as "Fast and Furious," which allowed "straw purchasers" to buy guns in Arizona and ship them to Mexico in order to track their shipment to Mexican drug cartels, that person was apparently ATF acting director, Kenneth Melson. Mr. Melson has decided not to play along. In secret testimony given over the July 4th holiday weekend, he accused the Department of Justice (DOJ) of obstructing a congressional investigation into the operation.

stunning letter sent to DOJ head Eric Holder by lead investigators Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Charles Grassely House (R-IA) noted that Melman's hearing had "originally been scheduled through the Justice Department to occur on July 13." The letter further noted that Melson appeared earlier "because Justice Department officials sought to limit and control his communications with Congress." They also criticized the department for not making Melson aware that he could participate in a "voluntary interview with [his] own lawyer...rather than participate with counsel representing the Department's interests."

Melson testified that "ATF's senior leadership would have preferred to be more cooperative with our inquiry much earlier in the process," the investigators wrote. "However...Justice Department officials directed them not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress...That approach distorted the truth and obstructed our investigation."

"The Department's inability or unwillingness to be more forthcoming served to conceal critical information that we are now learning about the involvement of other agencies, including the DEA and the FBI...The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in such activities," the lawmakers added.

Then, the most damning paragraph of all. "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. 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."

Yet that is precisely what the Justice Department is apparently doing. Grassley and Issa have been forced to subpoena documents that would likely reveal how far up the chain of command a program that amounted to government-sanctioned, cross-border gun smuggling went. Ostensibly, the cover-up involves cooperation among the ATF, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Or perhaps more accurately, a stunning lack of cooperation. Fox News is reporting that the main target of the ATF's investigation was a confidential FBI informant. The individual was a high-level drug dealer who had initially been deported by the DEA before the FBI recruited him as a counter-terrorism informant. He was ostensibly tasked with reporting on terrorists and/or dirty bombs moving across the country's border. ATF only became aware of the arrangement in April following a six-month, multi-million dollar investigation paid for by the public. That investigation revealed a disturbing level of bureaucratic ineptitude: the FBI informant was picked up by a DEA wiretap, and that info was forwarded to the ATF.

An unnamed source in Washington, D.C. reveals the absurdity. "They [the AFT] were going after someone they could never have," the source told Fox News. "The Mr. Big they wanted was using government money to buy guns that went to the cartels. The FBI knew it and didn't tell them." Issa and Grassley also expressed their consternation. “If this information is accurate, then the whole misguided operation might have been cut short if not for catastrophic failures to share key information,” they wrote.

Equally absurd was the program itself. Fast and Furious, also known as Project Gunrunner, began in 2009 as an effort to stop gun trafficking across the border, yet it quickly devolved into a fiasco when 80 percent of the weapons went missing. According to a Gunrunner source who didn't want to be identified for fear of retaliation, the number of weapons involved was daunting. "The numbers are over 2,500 on that case by the way," he said, referring to a single sting operation captured on videotape. "That's how many guns were sold--including some 50-calibers they let walk," he added. It should be noted that .50 caliber rifles have a confirmed kill range of 2600 yards.

Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassley said they became aware of the program in 2010 when border agent Brian Terry was killed in a shoot-out with illegals brandishing assault rifles -- even as Terry and his colleagues were armed with weapons that shot bean bags. Two of the guns found at the crime scene were traced back to a gun store monitored by the ATF in the Fast and Furious operation. Another one was found after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata was killed and fellow agent Victor Avila was wounded on a Mexican highway near San Luis Potosi on Feb. 15. Weapons have turned up at several other crime scenes on both sides of the border as well.

Many of the ATF agents involved in the operation warned of the potentially disastrous consequences involved in allowing guns to "walk" into Mexico. Last February, CBS News reported that "at least 11 ATF agents and senior managers voiced fierce opposition to the strategy. 'It got ugly...' said one. There was 'screaming and yelling' says another. A third warned: 'this is crazy, somebody is gonna to get killed.'" Yet another agent asked a superior if he was "prepared to go to the funeral of a federal officer killed with one of these guns."

A 51-page report released June 22nd revealed that such concerns were ignored. "I believe we are righteous in our plan to dismantle this entire [trafficking] organization and to rush in to arrest any one person without taking into account the entire scope of the conspiracy would be ill advised," wrote Fast and Furious leader, ATF Supervisor David Voth, to fellow agents in an April 2010 email. Federal Agent John Dodson, who broke the story to CBS, confirmed the prevailing attitude when he and other agents expressed their own misgivings with the project. "If you're going to make an omelette, you've got to scramble some eggs," was the response they got, he testified.

On June 29th, the president offered his own assessment of the scandal. "My attorney general has made clear that he certainly would not have ordered gun running to be able to pass through into Mexico...I'm not going to comment on a--on a current investigation. I've made very clear my views that that would not be an appropriate step by the ATF, and we've got to find out how that happened."

Yet if acting ATF director Kenneth Melson's testimony is truthful, finding out what happened is exactly what the Justice Department is trying to prevent. How does Melson fit into the mix? Several news sources have cited that Melson has been pressured to resign. Yet Melson himself testified otherwise over the holiday weekend. Thus he remains acting Director of the ATF. Why is this important? Because he is no longer considered a "career official" and, according to Issa and Grassley's letter to Eric Holder, "no longer enjoys the due process protections afforded to career officials." This means that Melson doesn't qualify for protections afforded by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989.

Rep. Issa and Sen. Grassley then expressed the gist of their concern. "[I]t would be inappropriate for the Justice Department to take action against him that could have the effect of intimidating others who might want to provide additional information to the Committees...we believe it would be inappropriate to make Mr. Melson the fall guy in an attempt to prevent further congressional oversight."

So far, the DOJ's response has been provided by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, who wrote a letter responding to Grassley and Issa in which he claimed the department “in no way sought to limit appropriate access to information concerning Operation Fast and Furious,” noting they had made over 2,000 document available to the investigating committee.

Whose telling the truth? This is not the first time the Department of Justice has been accused of stonewalling an investigation. In 2009, sworn testimony by J. Christian Adams indicated that Attorney General Eric holder “tampered” with ongoing investigations of a voter intimidation case involving Black Panthers in Philadelphia during the 2008 election. In the current case, Darrel Issa is convinced that Eric Holder, who has already answered questions regarding Fast and Furious here, knew about the scandal "earlier than he testified." That's an explosive charge.

It's an equally explosive scandal. One that won't be going away any time soon.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website