The chief congressional investigators of Operation Fast and Furious released explosive testimony from the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) that they say indicates the Obama administration tried to stonewall Congress, deny witnesses the ability to testify freely, and fire employees who refused to conceal damning information. According to acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson not only did the Justice Department play fast-and-loose with Fast and Furious, but other government agencies may have known – and funded – the straw purchasers the ATF program was designed to catch. The agency’s investigation, which has resulted in at least two deaths, may have been entirely unnecessary.
Scorn on the Fourth of July
Congressman Darrell Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley sent a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday, revealing that Melson gave a transcribed interview on the Fourth of July, with only his personal lawyer present. The news must have come as a shock to Holder. Melson’s testimony had been scheduled to take place July 13, with Melson’s counsel and Obama administration lawyers from the DoJ and ATF taking part.
According to the letter, Melson testified that the administration had not informed him of his legal right “to attend a voluntary interview with [his] own lawyer… rather than participate with counsel representing the Department’s interests.”
“We are disappointed that no one had previously informed him of that provision of the agreement,” they wrote. “Instead, Justice Department officials sought to limit and control his communications with Congress. This is yet another example of why direct communications with Congress are so important and are protected by law.”
(Obstruction of) Justice Department
The Congressmen’s recounting of Melson’s testimony includes mistakes he admitted making, including not personally reviewing hundreds of documents relating to Fast and Furious until March of this year. “By his account, he was sick to his stomach when he obtained those documents and learned the full story,” they write.
In the most stinging passage of the letter, Issa and Grassley accuse the administration of a concerted cover-up:
According to Mr. Melson [after learning about the consequences of the program], 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. If his account is accurate, then ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DOJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand. 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. (Emphases added.)
Melson’s story of the administration seizing control of the agency’s communications is reinforced by another whistleblower, Catherine Papoi of the Department of Homeland Security. Papoi testified that Obama officials are “breaking the law by knowingly and intentionally delaying and obstructing the release of agency records” after Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Similarly, a recent survey of 148 Senior Executive Service members conducted by the Government Business Council found career bureaucrats accused the Obama administration of routinely engaging in “politicization of normal agency functions.”
In Melson’s case, what they covered up was more unthinkable.
Project Gunrunner: Another Obama Stimulus Plan?
Issa and Grassley write the program – designed to sell guns to “straw buyers,” whom agents hoped would lead them to high-value purchasers across the Mexican border – may have taken place after the government had acquired their identities and, in some cases, cut deals with them.
[W]e 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 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…If this information is accurate, then the whole misguided operation might have been cut short if not for catastrophic failures to share key information. (Emphasis in original.)
In the bureaucratic chaos that has persisted ten years after 9/11, the ATF may have tried to learn the identity of criminals other agencies had on their payroll – and those funds may have purchased the weapons that killed Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and U.S. Special Agent Jaime Zapata. As recently as last week, assault weapons from the program had been reported at crime scenes in Phoenix and Glendale, Arizona.
Punishing a(nother) Whistleblower
Monday’s testimony suggests Obama officials have taken punitive measures against Melson out of fear he would expose them. The department attempted to leak word the director would be forced to resign over the scandal, but Issa and Grassley reveal that “he has not been asked to resign.” However, his employment is much more tenuous after he agreed to shift from a career to a political position. Political appointees lack many of the protections career civil service members enjoy.
This, too, echoes the Obama administration’s treatment of other whistleblowers in the past. The Holder Justice Department busted Christopher Coates down from chief of its Voting Rights division to a satellite office in South Carolina, so he could not testify about the department’s racial bias following its dismissal of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case. The DHS demoted Papoi after she contacted Issa. And the administration fired Inspector General Gerald Walpin after he filed two reports that embarrassed the administration’s allies.
In an attempt to protect Melson from further repercussions, the letter states: “Given his testimony, unless a permanent director is confirmed, it 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.”
Issa concludes, “Knowing what we know so far, we believe it would be inappropriate to make Mr. Melson the fall guy in an attempt to prevent further congressional oversight.”
Despite Obama’s most dogged attempts, the truth is coming out about how Agents Terry and Zapata lost their lives – and who has their blood on his hands.