This morning, there was a stunning development in Congress’s investigation of the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” gun-running program: it was revealed that on July 4, Kenneth Melson, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Obama administration’s intended fall guy in the scandal, broke ranks with his superiors. Without their knowledge, he gave an interview to Darrell Issa’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, accompanied only by his personal attorney. While a transcript of that interview is not yet public, it is clear that he blew the whistle on senior officials in the Justice Department.
This morning, Issa and Senator Charles Grassley released a letter that they sent yesterday to Attorney General Eric Holder. It is explosive, to say the least. You should read it in its entirety; here are some excerpts:
Yesterday, Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson participated in a transcribed interview regarding Operation Fast and Furious and related matters with both Republican and Democratic staff. He appeared with his personal counsel, Richard Cullen of McGuire Woods LLP. His interview had originally been scheduled through the Justice Department to occur on July 13 in the presence of DOJ and ATF counsel. As you know, however, under our agreement Department witnesses who choose to attend a voluntary interview with their own lawyer are free to exercise that right rather than participate with counsel representing the Department’s interests.
After being made aware of that provision of our agreement, Acting Director Melson chose to exercise that right and appeared with his own lawyer. We are disappointed that no one had previously informed him of that provision of the agreement. Instead, Justice Department officials sought to limit and control his communications with Congress.
DOJ’s effort to cover up the Fast and Furious scandal is one of the letter’s themes.
According to Mr. Melson, it was not until after the public controversy that he personally reviewed hundreds of documents relating to the case, including wiretap applications and Reports of Investigation (ROIs). By his account, he was sick to his stomach when he obtained those documents and learned the full story.
More on the DOJ’s attempt to hide the scandal from Congress:
Mr. Melson said that he told the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) at the end of March that the Department needed to reexamine how it was responding to the requests for information from Congress.
According to Mr. Melson, he and ATF’s senior leadership team moved to reassign every manager involved in Fast and Furious, from the Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations down to the Group Supervisor, after learning the facts in those documents. Mr. Melson also said he was not allowed to communicate to Congress the reasons for the reassignments. He claimed that ATF’s senior leadership would have preferred to be more cooperative with our inquiry much earlier in the process. However, he said that Justice Department officials directed them not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress. The result is that Congress only got the parts of the story that the Department wanted us to hear.
Issa’s committee has learned that other federal agencies, including the FBI and DEA, were involved in Fast and Furious, and that there was a failure to share information that was known to those other agencies:
When confronted with information about serious issues involving lack of information sharing by other agencies, which Committee staff had originally learned from other witnesses, Mr. Melson’s responses tended to corroborate what others had said. Specifically, we have very real indications from several sources that some of the gun trafficking “higher-ups” that the ATF sought to identify were already known to other agencies and may even have been paid as informants. The Acting Director said that ATF was kept in the dark about certain activities of other agencies, including DEA and FBI.
The evidence gathered by Issa’s oversight committee suggests that the Obama administration may actually have financed the purchases of firearms by known criminals, which then wound up in the hands of Mexican gangs and were involved in murders, including the murder of an American border patrol agent:
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. While this is preliminary information, we must find out if there is any truth to it. According to Acting Director Melson, he became aware of this startling possibility only after the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and the indictments of the straw purchasers, which we now know were substantially delayed by the u.s. Attorney’s Office and Main Justice.
Issa and Grassley link the Obama administration’s effort to slide Melson out of his position, making him the fall guy for the Fast and Furious operation, with Melson’s complaints to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the number two official in the Department of Justice, about DOJ’s failure to respond adequately to Congress’s requests for information about Fast and Furious:
However, two days after he told Acting Deputy Attorney General Cole about serious issues involving lack of information sharing, the Wall Street Journal reported that unnamed sources said that Melson was about to be ousted.
The full transcript of Melson’s testimony, when released, will be a fascinating document. In the meantime, it appears clear that the Fast and Furious scandal reaches to the very top of Barack Obama’s Department of Justice.