The former head of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told congressional investigators he discovered the Obama administration’s original account to Congress about the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal was inaccurate as early as March 2011 and urged the Justice Department to correct the record, an action that did not formally occur until eight months later.
The full testimony from retired Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson has not yet been officially released by Congress. But excerpts were obtained by the Washington Guardian as House and Senate investigators this week issued their second report into the gun-running scandal that has become an embarrassment for the administration and prompted a court fight over executive privilege.
At issue is the Obama administration’s initial account when the Fast and Furious scandal broke in February 2011 that ATF agents never knowingly let semiautomatic weapons fall into the hands of smugglers for the Mexican drug cartels. Senior officials held that position in varying forms for months as the scandal grew, but then reversed course last December in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.
Mr. Melson’s testimony — during a private deposition with congressional investigators — suggests the administration knew as early as March 2011 that its account was wrong and could have corrected it months earlier than it did.
“I drafted an email to our people, and said, you know, you better back off, you better back off this statement,” Mr. Melson testified, recalling what he did in late March 2011 after reading files from the case that contradicted the administration’s official explanation.
Mr. Melson alerted the U.S. attorney in Phoenix of his concerns, sent an email to his ATF subordinates titled “Hold the presses” and another to the deputy attorney general’s office after making the discovery, according to evidence separately gathered by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
But despite those emails, Justice sent a second letter to Congress a month later, with Mr. Melson’s blessing, again falsely reasserting that no gun had been allowed to walk in the Fast and Furious case.
Congressional investigators also have learned of a second warning a few months later in August in which senior Justice officials were alerted their assertions were wrong.
The former ATF chief’s account likely will bolster Republican arguments that the administration has repeatedly slow-walked the truth when faced with controversies such as the gun-running scandal, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or the recent terror attack on the U.S Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others.
The administration has steadfastly denied intentionally misleading Congress, suggesting the details of complicated investigations take time to sort out. They also have noted that officials like Mr. Melson signed off on their various letters to Congress, leaving conflicting signals about the facts in the case.
The congressional report released Monday afternoon, on the eve of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall and just a week from Election Day, officially accused the Justice Department of concocting a strategy that ultimately led ATF agents in Arizona to allow nearly 2,000 U.S. semiautomatic weapons to flow unimpeded into Mexico’s violent drug wars, where they later turned up at the scenes of several killings on both sides of the border, including the site of a U.S. border agent’s slaying in December 2010.
“Operation Fast and Furious was not a strictly local operation conceived by a rogue ATF office in Phoenix, but rather the product of a deliberate strategy created at the highest levels of the Justice Department aimed at identifying the leaders of a major gun trafficking ring,” the report alleged. “This strategy, along with institutional inertia, led to the genesis, implementation, and year-long duration of Fast and Furious.”
The report accused Justice Department officials of turning a blind eye to warnings signs about the deadly consequences of their flawed strategy.
“Leadership’s failure to recognize Fast and Furious was a problem until it was too late was the result of a ‘pass-the-buck’ attitude that emanated from the highest echelons of the Department of Justice,” said the report from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
The report also divulged for the first time that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s office originally planned for him to go to Arizona to announce the results of the Fast and Furious investigation before Justice Department officials abruptly dropped the idea when guns from the operation showed up at the murder scene of the border agent.