But other Justice officials conceded to the Washington Guardian that the administration’s account in Fast and Furious slowly evolved, and that it took eight months to officially correct the record even as internal discussions focused on inaccuracies in the original account. “We can parse words all we want, but we missed several chances to get straight with Congress,” one senior official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
The congressional report describes in dramatic detail how Melson came to become a cooperating witness in the congressional investigation in the summer of 2011, to the surprise of some of his superiors. But it does not reference Melson’s description of what he did when he learned the administration’s original account to Congress was inaccurate.
News reports first surfaced in early 2011 that ATF agents in an Arizona criminal case codenamed Fast and Furious were overruled by superiors and forced to let guns flow into the hands of suspected smugglers for the Mexican drug cartels. Two of the weapons had shown up at the scene of a killing of U.S. border agent Brian Terry.
Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, began investigating, and the administration sent a letter to the senator, dated Feb. 4, 2011, that categorically denied the allegations.
Specifically, the administration claimed it had not engaged in “gun walking,” an activity in which agents knowingly let weapons flow to straw buyers without interdicting them. In fact, more than a month after Melson said he warned officials that such denial were inaccurate, the Justice Department sent a second letter to Congress standing by its denial. “It remains our understanding that ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious did not knowingly permit straw-purchase buyers to take guns into Mexico,” the May 2011 letter asserted.
Eventually, starting with Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama, officials allowed it was possible guns had been allowed to cross the border but that the matter was under investigation. Subsequent investigations by Congress and the Justice Department inspector general verified the agents had in fact let guns walk, and they sharply criticized the administration for permitting a flawed strategy.
The Justice Department, however, waited until December 2011 to formally withdraw its inaccurate letters and correct the record.
Melson told congressional investigators he originally believed the Justice Department’s assertion to be true, but while flying on a plane March 30, 2011 he reviewed investigative reports (known as ROIs) and wiretap affidavits in the Arizona case and discovered that agents had, in fact, allowed guns to “walk” on numerous occasions.
“I was reading through the some of the wiretap applications on the plane. In fact, I think I was the first, other than a couple of agents who reviewed all of the ROIs and everything, but missed the smoking guns,” Melson recounted. “I decided to have confidence that we’ve looked at everything, that I would read them all.
“So sitting on the plane, reading the wiretap affidavit and one of the wiretap affidavits — in fact, I think more than one, there was a statement in there prepared by the agents — the AUSA and reviewed by the Criminal Division that suggested there was probable cause to believe that straw purchasers were taking guns across the border,” he added.
“It was apparent to me that they were suggesting that there was probable cause to believe that this information — that these straw purchasers were taking guns across the border,” he continued. “So while on the plane, I drafted an e-mail to our people, and said, you know, you better back off, you better back off this statement, because — the statement in this letter, this Feb. 4 letter to Sen. Grassley, because I don’t believe we can say that in light of the information that our agent was swearing to before a federal district court judge to get the wiretap.”
After getting off the plane, Melson alerted then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke in Phoenix, who oversaw the Fast and Furious invetsigation, to his concerns about the inaccuracies in the letter. And he sent a email to several subordinates inside ATF entitled “Hold the presses,” specifically urging that the Justice Department correct the record. “We have to change …the statement in the first Grassley response that was actually sent,” Melson wrote his subordinates, according to excerpts in the September report of the Justice inspector general.
After emailing his subordinates inside ATF to correct the record, Melson sent a separate email 10 minutes later Associate Deputy Attorney General Matt Axelrod to advise him of his concerns.
The Justice IG recounts the email this way: “Rather than title his e-mail, ‘Hold the presses,’ Melson simply entitled his e-mail to Axelrod ‘F and F.’ Additionally, instead of describing his concerns about the February 4 response to Sen.Grassley, as he had done for his ATF colleagues, Melson simply said to Axelrod, ‘you need to read the [Title] III affidavit, still under seal. Changes some things.’
“Melson thereafter sent at least two additional e-mails to Axelro referencing the paragraphs in the wiretap affidavit dated July 2, 2010, which concerned him,” the IG found.