Acting BATF Director Reassigned In Wake Of Gunrunning Scandal

Why was the ATF allowing thousands of weapons to be smuggled to Mexican drug gangs?

Just prior to the Labor Day holiday, the Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was removed from the top spot at the agency over the fallout from a story that has been brewing over the summer, and which promises to bec0me the focus of a Congressional investigation in this fall:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting Director Kenneth Melson is being moved out of the top job at the bureau, ATF special agents in charge announced during an internal conference call today. He will transfer to the Justice Department and assume the position of senior advisor on forensic science, Office of Legal Programs.

The DOJ announced Melson will be replaced by the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, Todd Jones.

“As a seasoned prosecutor and former military judge advocate, U.S. Attorney Jones is a demonstrated leader who brings a wealth of experience to this position,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

Also, U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke has submitted his resignation to President Obama, effective immediately. In an email sent to his staff Tuesday, Burke says his long tenure in public office has been intensely gratifying and intensely demanding.

Burke was interviewed by Congressional investigators behind closed doors on Aug. 18.

Sources tell CBS News that the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Phoenix, Emory Hurley, who worked under Burke and helped oversee the controversial case is also expected to be transferred out of the Criminal Division into the Civil Division. Justice Department officials provided no immediate comment or confirmation of that move.

The firings have their root in an BATF program called Project Gunnrunner, which began in 2006 as part of an agency effort to monitor the transfer of weapons to Mexican drug gangs. In 2009, however, someone had the idea to set up a sting operation, eventually dubbed Operation Fast & Furious, which essentially allowed illegal gun purchases in the United States to take place for the supposed purpose of tracking those guns into the hands of the drug gangs. As with many such operations, though, things didn’t exactly go as planned. ATF agents monitoring the border were told by supervisors to let known smugglers pass into Mexico, despite the fact that the agents knew they were transporting weapons. When an ATF Agent named Brian Terry was found dead along a known smuggling route in Arizona, assault rifles that had been illegally sold in the U.S. and tracked by the ATF were found at the scene. In addition to the Terry shooting, guns that the ATF knowingly allowed to slip into Mexico have been tied to the downing of a Mexican military helicopter, the murder of a well-known Mexican attorney who had spoken out against the drug gangs, and one of the ATF agents that blew the whistle on the operation was served with termination papers. On top of all this, when Members of Congress started to ask questions about the death of Agent Terry and the role that the ATF sting operation may have played in  it, the agency responded evasively and tried to deflect attention away from potential wrongdoing. Moreover, the three men responsible for putting the program together are still ATF employees and were recently transferred to administrative positions in what looks for all the world like a promotion, even though the ATF denies that is actually is.

The obvious question, of course, is how high up the chain of command knowledge of what was going on in Arizona went. President Obama has said that neither he nor the Attorney General had any knowledge of the operation, and that “we’ve got to find out how that happened.” At the same time, though, one ATF manage who testified before Congress earlier this summer said that he shared information about the operation with the White House:

At a lengthy hearing on ATF’s controversial gunwalking operation today, a key ATF manager told Congress he discussed the case with a White House National Security staffer as early as September 2010. The communications were between ATF Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix office, Bill Newell, and White House National Security Director for North America Kevin O’Reilly. Newell said the two are longtime friends. The content of what Newell shared with O’Reilly is unclear and wasn’t fully explored at the hearing.

(…)

Congressional investigators obtained an email from Newell to O’Reilly in September of last year in which Newell began with the words: “you didn’t get this from me.”

“What does that mean,” one member of Congress asked Newell, ” ‘you didn’t get this from me?’ ”

“Obviously he was a friend of mine,” Newell replied, “and I shouldn’t have been sending that to him.”

Newell told Congress that O’Reilly had asked him for information.

“Why do you think he asked for that information,” Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked Newell.

“He was asking about the impact of Project Gunrunner to brief people in preparation for a trip to Mexico… what we were doing to combat firearms trafficking and other issues.”

While Project Gunrunner began during the Bush Administration, this operation is clearly the baby of the Obama Administration and the Holder Department of Justice. In fact, a significant part of its funding came from the Administration’s much-vaunted 2009 economic stimulus bill.

For the moment it appears for all the world like Burke is being treated as the sacrificial lamb by Justice in the hopes that his removal will satisfy the Republicans in Congress who have latched on to this story for understandable reasons. That’s unlikely to happen, though, as both Congressman Darrell Issa and Senator Chuck Grassley, who have been on top of this story for months now, have recently indicated an intent to expand the investigation notwithstanding the ATF’s personnel changes:

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) said they were expanding their probe into a troubled anti-gun-trafficking program, two days after the Justice Department announced a shake-up of officials who oversaw the program.

In a letter Thursday to Ann Scheel, the acting U.S. Attorney in Phoenix, Messrs. Grassley and Issa essentially put the Arizona district office on notice, saying its role “in the genesis and implementation of this case is striking.” They sought extensive documents – emails, memos, notes and the like – from six top officials, including Ms. Scheel and Dennis Burke, the former U.S. Attorney who was ousted in the shake-up. The lawmakers had signaled on Tuesday that their investigation would intensify

(…)

In their letter, Messrs. Grassley and Issa zeroed in on a court filing by the Phoenix office seeking to deny Mr. Terry’s family rights under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, and expressed concerns about conflicts of interest in prosecuting the Terry case. “Since your office directed and approved the daily tactical decisions in Operation Fast and Furious, it is hard to avoid the perception that a conflict of interest exists,” the two wrote.

It seems clear that what we’ve got here, at the very least, is an example of gross incompetence on the part of the ATF. Whoever camp up with the idea of knowingly letting assault rifles and other weapons into the hands of known straw purchasers who then transferred them to Mexican drug gangs (by one estimate, over 2,500 straw purchases were permitted to go through by the ATF, with none of the guns being recovered), wasn’t really thinking too straight. Instead of uncovering U.S.-to-Mexico gunrunning, which agents were ordered not to halt when they did discover it, they allowed countless numbers of weapons to get into the hands of known violent criminal, much to the anger of Mexican politicians.

Some on the right have suggested that the entire operation was intended not to track gunrunning into Mexico, but to undermine the case for gun rights here in the United states. That seems far-fetched, however. Given the way these operations go, the old adage “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It’s far easier to believe that a bunch of people in the ATF and the Justice Department came up with a hare brained idea and then implemented in an incompetent manner than it is to believe that this is part of some insidious conspiracy to undermine the Second Amendment. Nonetheless, I have to agree with those on the right who argue that there are questions that need to be answered in connection with this story, not the least of them being:

  1. Who came up with the idea of allowing guns to be purchased by straw purchasers and then “walked” across the border by smugglers?
  2. Who authorized Operation Fast and Furious in the Department of Justice?
  3. Who authorized Operation Fast and Furious in the Department of Homeland Security?
  4. Is Operation Fast and Furious the only operation of its type, or were there similar operations in Texas, Florida, and other states as evidence suggests?
  5. What, precisely, did Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and Janet Napolitano know about Operation Fast and Furious, and when did they know it?

It strikes me that these are all fairly simple questions, but it would appear that we’ll need to go through several months of investigations to find out the answer.

H/T: To @IrishSpy on Twitter and bmaz at Empty Wheel for pointing me to source material on this matter.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Crime, Law and the Courts, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Sam Stone says:

    This is bigger than Watergate. American Border patrol Agents dead!

    Time to hold the corrupt racist Holder accountable for these violations of state, Federal and international laws.

    Extradite him to Mexico!

  2. You mention that it was begun during the Bush administration. It also needs to be asked then if it was of the same character during Bush’s tenure and if so who in that administration approved and knew about it as well.

  3. Sam Stone says:

    This entire Fast & Furious was nothing more than the Obama?Holder JustUs Dept toc reate a crisis to further erode the rights of Americans.

    Google american guns mexico 2009

    Look at all the stories that originated from the WH and the JustUs Dept.

    All while KNOWING these firearms were allowed to walk purposefully. They manufacture the crisis and it all went to hell when Brian Terry was killed with one of those “walking” firearms.

    Then the Obama/Holder JustUs Dept go ahead and make new regs anyway!

    These corrupt international gun runners must be held accountable.

  4. john personna says:

    Wikipedia says:

    Operation Fast and Furious was the name of a sting run by the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) between 2009 and 2010 as part of Project Gunrunner in its investigations into illegal gun trafficking . The stated purpose of the operation was to permit otherwise-suspected straw purchasers to complete the weapon’s purchase and transit to Mexico, in order to build a bigger case against Mexican criminal organizations suspected of being the ultimate buyer.[1]

    That seems crazy, but it also seems this idea to transmit guns was there from the start.

    I really don’t get that. “Build a case” against cartels in Mexico? For indictment where, here or there?

  5. Sam Stone says:

    Fast & Furious WAS NOT started by Bush but by Obama/Holder.

    Holder KNEW about it even though he testified under oath he did not!

  6. samwide says:

    Next thing you know, Sam will be frothing about bigoted homo gunrunners.

  7. @Stormy Dragon:

    Project Gunnrunner started during the Bush Administration. Operation Fast & Furious, which was the plan to allow straw purchasers to smuggle guns into Mexico, was begin under Obama and Holder.

  8. Looking further, the parts of Project Gunrunner that existed prior to 2009 involved giving foreign governments access to eTrace and had nothing to do with Fast and Furious, the program that allowed the straw purchases to go through and be smuggled out of the country.

    You might want to rewrite that part a bit, as your current article suggests a connection that doesn’t seem to be there.

  9. Get out of my head, Doug! ;P

  10. Jay Tea says:

    Considering how the Mexican drug cartels are an actual threat to the Mexican government’s continuing existence, could our supplying them with weapons without the Mexican government’s knowledge or consent be considered an act of war?

    Approving something as hefty as that would NOT be done by some bureaucrat. My hunch says Holder — as the very lowest level.

    J.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s a larger question about the role of “sting” operations in law enforcement and what guidelines and limits govern their use. They aren’t universal, you know. Some countries ban their use.

    It seems to me that, for one thing, there should be a distinction among operations in which you actually foment crime by people who are otherwise without criminal records, operations which don’t put the public at risk (e.g. an operation against a terrorist cell in which no actual weapons are ever given them), and an operation, as “Fast and Furious” apparently was, that does, in fact, put the public at risk. If such an operation doesn’t already receive the highest level of scrutiny, I think it should.

  12. Sam Stone says:

    @samwide:

    What a total ass you are samwide. A typical asshole who has nothing but ad hominum attacks is a loser form the start.

  13. samwide says:

    @Sam Stone (Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 10:11):

    A typical asshole who has nothing but ad hominum attacks is a loser form the start.

    @Sam Stone: (Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 09:37)

    Time to hold the corrupt racist Holder accountable for these violations of state, Federal and international laws.

    Ecce homo.

  14. Sam Stone says:

    @samwide:

    Your still an asshole samwide. TOTAL ASSHOLE!

  15. Eric Florack says:

    Holder knew about this project from day one.
    At the very least it’s time to get Holder frog-Marching out of the White House in front of cameras.

    The only question remaining is how much Obama knew about it.

  16. Sam Stone says:

    Holder gave a speech in Mexico to their government in 2009 and mentioned this program.

    “Last week, our administration launched a major new effort to break the backs of the cartels. My department is committing 100 new ATF personnel to the Southwest border in the next 100 days to supplement our ongoing Project Gunrunner, DEA is adding 16 new positions on the border, as well as mobile enforcement teams, and the FBI is creating a new intelligence group focusing on kidnapping and extortion. DHS is making similar commitments, as Secretary Napolitano will detail.”

    Here is a link to his own website and that speech.

    http://www.justice.gov/ag/speeches/2009/ag-speech-090402.html

    On May 3, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified before House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa’s committee that he only learned about the government’s sale of weapons to Mexican drug cartels “in the last few weeks.”

    He lied under oath and must face the consequences.

  17. ponce says:

    The only question remaining is how much Obama knew about it.

    You gotta laugh at wingnuts.

    It was no big deal when their president handed over 190,000 AK-47s and pistols to al Qaeda in Iraq

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/aug/06/usa.iraq

    But a few hundred guns lost in Mexico is the apocalypse.

  18. Sam Stone says:

    @ponce:

    Get someone to explain the difference between war and international, state and federal law.

  19. Sam Stone says:

    @ponce:

    And it was THOUSANDS not hundreds.

  20. Boyd says:

    @ponce:

    But a few hundred guns lost in Mexico is the apocalypse.

    It’s mischaracterizations such as this that accumulate over time and lead folks who aren’t very familiar with an event into believing something that isn’t true.

    Whatever ends up being the truth about Fast and Furious, “lost” will never be an accurate depiction of what happened with these guns.

  21. tps says:

    It also turns out that at least some of the purchasers were FBI/DEA informants acting with the knowledge of their controllers. Forget about the theories that this was a stalking horse for more gun control, it just doesn’t make sense what they were doing.

  22. tps says:

    Here’s a question: What do we do if more links are discovered and Mexico demands officials who were responsible be turned over for trial? What if the evidence shows that Holder was directly linked to it and is accused of murder?

  23. Boyd says:

    @tps: There have already been reports that Mexican legislators have called for the extradition of US officials who sanctioned Fast and Furious.

  24. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s a pretty safe bet this won’t be the subject of any “60 Minutes” exposes and that Hollywood won’t be rushing to make “All the President’s Men II” any time soon. Call it a hunch.

    As for Eric Holder, you’d have to be naive beyond Democrat to believe that he didn’t know at all times exactly what was going on. Holder is a corrupt leftist hack and when corrupt leftist hacks hold major public offices bad things are bound to happen. QED.

  25. Jay Tea says:

    @Boyd: There have already been reports that Mexican legislators have called for the extradition of US officials who sanctioned Fast and Furious.

    Never thought this Gringo would say this, but… Viva Las Mexicanos!

  26. Rob in CT says:

    So the idea was some sort of sting? It sounds too clever by half.

  27. Boyd says:

    @Rob in CT: Kinda sorta. But they had no procedures or mechanism for tracking the guns, so it’s kinda hard to figure out how ATF and Justice planned to accomplish the claimed goals of this operation.

  28. Sam Stone says:

    Now word about Grenade Walker by Holder and Co.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903648204576552511067409414.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
    Grenades Case Hits Justice
    Blunders After U.S. Arrest of Suspected Supplier Had a Part in High-Level Ousters

    http://michellemalkin.com/2011/09/06/fast-and-furious-update-project-grenadewalker/

    Time for a SPECIAL PROSECUTOR!

  29. Sam Stone says:

    by Tom Fitton, “I don’t believe we’ve seen a more corrupt, politicized and incompetent Department of Justice (DOJ) in modern political history than we have now under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. And I never thought I’d write those words after suffering eight years of Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration.”

    So right!

  30. Jay Tea says:

    @ponce: It was no big deal when their president handed over 190,000 AK-47s and pistols to al Qaeda in Iraq.

    Like the Iraq guns were no big deal to you until you needed an excuse for the SCOAMF in the White House and figured a tu quoque was just the ticket, huh?

    J.

  31. samwide says:

    I don’t believe we’ve seen a more corrupt, politicized and incompetent Department of Justice (DOJ) in modern political history than we have now under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

    Golly, he musta missed the DOJ under John Mitchell — or perhaps he’s just a conservative hack who’d rather forget that sorry episode in judicial history.

  32. Dazedandconfused says:

    I watched the hearings. The answers to your questions are, at this point:

    “Who came up with the idea of allowing guns to be purchased by straw purchasers and then “walked” across the border by smugglers?”

    Newell, mostly. Some others in the Phoenix ATF office as well. They wrote it up and got the sign-off from Melson and the Phoenix DOJ office. Newell is actually still sort of proud of his ingenuity, citing un-named pending cases “under prosecution”. Incredible as it seems.

    “Who authorized Operation Fast and Furious in the Department of Justice?”

    Phoenix. Burke. Forcelli ripped that office several raw new ones.

    “Who authorized Operation Fast and Furious in the Department of Homeland Security?”

    AFAIR, DHS wasn’t brought up.

    “Is Operation Fast and Furious the only operation of its type, or were there similar operations in Texas, Florida, and other states as evidence suggests?”

    A similar operation through Honduras is being looked at. That one the DEA is purported to be the major instigators thereof. Vague stories only, at this point, but admissions were made. The evidence presented at the hearings that I recall didn’t suggest similar operations out of the Texas or Florida offices. If anything, to the contrary. Most agents were appalled at this one.

    “What, precisely, did Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and Janet Napolitano know about Operation Fast and Furious, and when did they know it?”

    No evidence of their knowledge differing from their statements has come to light. The ATF agents all either testified to knowledge of, or having opinion that, it was cooked up at the local office level. No “Blue Dress” on the horizon, as yet.

  33. Jay Tea says:

    @Dazedandconfused: As I noted above, aiding and abetting the smuggling of weapons across the Mexican border for the use by the Mexican drug cartels constitutes an act of war against Mexico. You trying to say that this was done at the frigging LOCAL LEVEL? That don’t pass my dog’s smell test, and I don’t even own a dog.

    J.

  34. Jay Tea says:

    @Dazedandconfused: Oh, and here are some of those “blue dresses” — e-mails about Fast & Furious to Acting ATF Director Melman, Deputy Director Hoover, and other notables.

    http://michellemalkin.com/2011/06/15/document-drop-more-project-gunrunner-fit-hits-the-shan/

    And here are three White House staffers who were briefed on F&F:

    The three officials who were briefed: Kevin M. O’Reilly, director of North American Affairs for the White House national security staff; Dan Restrepo, the president’s senior Latin American advisor; and Greg Gatjanis, a White House national security official.

    http://michellemalkin.com/2011/09/02/fast-and-furious-update-yes-the-white-house-got-e-mails/

    As I said, this reeks. And it reeks far too much to just be one local office gone rogue.

    J.

  35. anjin-san says:

    constitutes an act of war against Mexico

    Hmmm. So, you think we may have a war with Mexico – and you have this to say:

    Never thought this Gringo would say this, but… Viva Las Mexicanos!

  36. Jay Tea says:

    @anjin-san: The “Viva” was in response to the possibility that Mexico might try to extradite some of the Fast and Furious key figures for trial in Mexico. And I stand by that.

    The fact is that we supplied a major threat to the Mexican government with weapons without that government’s knowledge, and that is an act of war. I stand by that, too.

    There are two possibilities here. One is this was a rogue operation, headed up by someone without the authority to commit the United States to acts of war against a sovereign state. In that case, the responsible parties should be tried in either — or both — jurisdictions.

    The other is that this was approved by someone with the authority to commit the US to acts of war — President Obama. If he did sign off on it, then he has to make things right with Mexico, or they would be more than justified in retaliating.

    Militarily, that would be a wash. But they could haul us before the World Court for “acts of aggression,” and Obama would be hard-pressed by his base (who tends to love one-world government and the US being treated no better than any other nation more than my side) to explain why we shouldn’t submit to their judgment.

    I don’t believe for an instant that Obama or anyone else actually intended to commit an act of war against Mexico. I think they were just too frigging stupid to think it through and realize that was exactly what they were doing. And shit like that does NOT get written off with an “oops, my bad.”

    J.

  37. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Jay Tea:

    Not making any claims about the veracity of the ATF agents, just trying to share my knowledge from watching all the hearings. I found them fascinating, even hilarious at times.

    Many of the comments floating around among the “Chatterazzi” about this deal indicate to me they did not watch the hearings. Just trying to answer the mans questions.

  38. Jay Tea says:

    @Dazedandconfused: OK, I see our difference (not disagreement) here. You’re looking at the testimony and saying “interesting.” I’m looking at the testimony and saying “perjury.”

    No real contradiction there, just different perspectives — no doubt partially shaped by our political biases.

    Cool. It’s good for me to hear differing perspectives — that’s partly why I come here. Thanks for elaborating.

    J.

  39. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Jay Tea:

    It’s all good. I am pretty a-political, just know LE pretty well.

    The most complete account of the mess, to me, is an article by Sari Horwitz at WaPo from about July 27, if anybody is real interested.

    The larger context of all of this? We really should consider re-thinking this whole War On Drugs thingy. One of these days…

  40. anjin-san says:

    We really should consider re-thinking this whole War On Drugs thingy. One of these days…

    Today is a good day for it…

  41. anjin-san says:

    The “Viva” was in response to the possibility that Mexico might try to extradite some of the Fast and Furious key figures for trial in Mexico. And I stand by that.

    Hmm. Perhaps you could link to some posts you have made calling for Bush to be extradited to one of the many countries that want to hold him accountable for war crimes.

    Failing that, we might have to conclude that this is just partisan blather on your part hiding behind a thin veneer of concern for justice and doing the right thing.

    And shit like that does NOT get written off with an “oops, my bad.”

    Good. How about linking to some of your posts calling for accountability for the 17 billion in taxpayer dollars that the Bush admin flew into Iraq, where it simply vanished without a trace. Or the ones calling for justice for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died in a war that we (Bush/Cheney) stared based on a false premise. Or have you just written this all off because it was done under a Republican administration?

    I am standing by…

  42. Jay Tea says:

    @anjin-san: I’m confused. Is that a “tu quoque” argument, or a “hey, look over there!” ploy?

    I’ll pretend you’re actually sincere. In this case, there is not only evidence, but open admission that representatives of our government conspired to aid and abet the Mexican drug cartels, but actually did so. And those cartels are a clear and present danger to the very existence of the state of Mexico. So yeah, kind of a big deal.

    And no, I don’t particularly feel like re-fighting the Iraq war arguments. Been there, done that, wore out the T-Shirt. Unless, of course, you can dig up an act of Congress that says “it is the policy of the United States to supply weapons to the Mexican drug cartels in their ongoing war against the legitimate government of Mexico.” You find one of those, then get back to me.

    J.

  43. Jay Tea says:

    @anjin-san: So, then, anjin, what is YOUR theory about what Fast & Furious was supposed to achieve? What was the intent of helping the Mexican drug cartels get even more guns? What was the greater good or interest of justice that would be advanced by it?

    Come on, you gotta have SOME kind of theory…

    J.