- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday described as “inconceivable” a Justice Department decision to promote key Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) personnel who oversaw the controversial “Fast and Furious” weapons investigation that allowed hundreds of guns to be walked into Mexico to new positions in Washington.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who last week demanded that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. immediately brief his office regarding the “scope and details of any past or present ATF gun-walking programs” in his state, said until Mr. Holder and the department “come clean” on the gun-walking investigation, “it is inconceivable to reward those who spearheaded this disastrous operation with cushy desks in Washington.”

The ATF has promoted three key supervisors of a controversial sting operation that allowed firearms to be illegally trafficked across the U.S. border into Mexico.

Mr. Cornyn’s comments were in response to a Los Angeles Times’ story that said three ATF supervisors heavily criticized for pushing the Fast and Furious program forward had been given new management positions at the agency’s Washington headquarters. The three are William G. McMahon, ATF’s deputy director of operations in the West, and William D. Newell and David J. Voth, both of whom oversaw the program out of the agency’s Phoenix office.

Mr. McMahon, who told a House committee he shared responsibility for “mistakes that were made” in the Fast and Furious operation, was promoted Sunday to deputy assistant director of the ATF’s Office of Professional Responsibility and Security Operations — which investigates suspected misconduct by employees.

Mr. Newell, former ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field division who steadfastly defended the program in his committee testimony, was named as special assistant to the assistant director of the agency’s Office of Management in Washington.

Mr. Voth, ATF Group VII Strike Force supervisor who oversaw day-to-day operations of the Fast and Furious investigation, was moved to Washington to become branch chief for the ATF’s tobacco division.

In an agency-wide memo, Acting ATF Director Kenneth E. Melson said the agents were promoted because of “the skills and abilities they have demonstrated throughout their careers.”

Mr. Cornyn, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security and a former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice, told Mr. Holder in a letter Thursday that the Arizona-based operation and “ill-advised” and had “tragic consequences” in that state. He said his Texas constituents deserved “a full accounting.”

“As a part of that program — ATF agents instructed federally-licensed firearms dealers to illegally sell more than 1,000 weapons to straw purchasers working for drug cartels in Mexico,” he wrote. “These ATF agents were also ordered by their superiors to ignore well-established practice and refrain from interdicting these weapons before they flowed into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

“Sadly, this ill-advised program had tragic consequences, with these ‘walked’ weapons showing up at the scene of multiple violent crimes — including the murder of United States Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry” along the Arizona-Mexico border.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, have both investigated the program. They said two AK-47 assault rifles found at the site of the Terry shooting, 10 miles from the Mexico border near Nogales, Ariz., were traced back to a straw buyer who had purchased the weapons as part of the undercover investigation.

Mr. Grassley and Mr. Issa have said that Fast and Furious allowed “approximately 2,000 heavy-duty assault type firearms to be illegally trafficked” and that “hundreds of these weapons have already been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.”

Under the operation, several ATF agents testified they were ordered by their supervisors to “stand down” from surveillance operations and let the straw buyers’ weapons travel across the border into Mexico. The operation was halted in January, shortly after the Dec. 15 Terry killing.

• Jerry Seper can be reached at jseper@washingtontimes.com.

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