The acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), who got caught this year in a firestorm over the Fast and Furious undercover gun investigation, was reassigned Tuesday and will be replaced by U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones of Minnesota.
Kenneth E. Melson, whose last day on the job was the close of business Tuesday, reports Wednesday to the Justice Department’s office of legal programs, where he will assume a lesser role as senior adviser on forensic science.
Also on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke in Arizona, who oversaw all federal prosecutions in the state, resigned, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, the lead prosecutor in the Fast and Furious investigation, was reassigned from the criminal division to the civil division.
The three Justice Department officials came under heavy criticism this year when two top Re<t-5>publican lawmakers discovered that hundreds of weapons sold to straw buyers in the Fast and Furious investigation had been “walked” to drug smugglers in Mexico.
At least two of those weapons, AK-47 assault rifles, turned up at the site of the fatal shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, killed by Mexican bandits just north of Nogales, Ariz.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the reassignments a step forward, but said he and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, will continue to investigate the operation.
“While the reckless disregard for safety that took place in Operation Fast and Furious certainly merits changes within the Department of Justice, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee will continue its investigation to ensure that blame isn’t offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department,” Mr. Issa said.
“There are still many questions to be answered about what happened in Operation Fast and Furious and who else bears responsibility, but these changes are warranted and offer an opportunity for the Justice Department to explain the role other officials and offices played in the infamous efforts to allow weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels,” he said.
The Californian said he remained “very concerned” about a statement by Mr. Melson to investigators during a secret weekend session that the Justice Department was managing its response in a manner intended to protect its political appointees.
He said he and Mr. Grassley would continue to press the department for answers “to ensure that a reckless effort like Fast and Furious does not take place again.”
Mr. Grassley described the reassignments as “an admission” by the Obama administration that serious mistakes were made in the operation.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around. As our investigation moves forward, and we get to the bottom of this policy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more fallout beyond the resignations and new assignments announced today,” he said. “The Justice Department and the ATF have yet to answer a majority of the questions and still must produce many of the documents Congressman Issa and I have asked for.
“We’re looking for a full accounting from the Justice Department as to who knew what and when, so we can be sure that this ill-advised strategy never happens again,” he said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and a Senate Judiciary Committee member, said that instead of reassigning those responsible for Fast and Furious, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. “should ask for their resignations and come clean on all alleged gun-walking operations, including a detailed response to allegations of a Texas-based scheme.”
Earlier this month, Mr. Cornyn asked Mr. Holder to explain press reports of suspected Texas-based “gun-walking” programs similar to Fast and Furious. To date, he said, Mr. Holder has refused to respond.
The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which claims 650,000 members, denounced Mr. Holder’s handling of the case and called Tuesday’s shuffle “a political charade by the man who really ought to tender his resignation.”
The group’s chairman, Alan Gottlieb, said Mr. Holder was trying to “convince people he is taking action” in an operation being investigated by Congress.
“Holder is just moving deck chairs on the Titanic,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “Today’s announcements will do nothing to restore America’s confidence in the BATF or the Justice Department so long as Eric Holder remains the attorney general. The ultimate responsibility for Fast and Furious lies with Holder.
“There has been no discipline and no accountability, because the man who should be ultimately accountable is still running the Justice Department,” he said.
Mr. Holder, in announcing the changes, said that as a seasoned prosecutor and former military judge advocate, Mr. Jones is a “demonstrated leader who brings a wealth of experience to this position.”
“I have great confidence that he will be a strong and steady influence guiding ATF in fulfilling its mission of combating violent crime by enforcing federal criminal laws and regulations in the firearms and explosives industries,” Mr. Holder said.
Mr. Jones, a former U.S. Marine, will take over as acting ATF director Wednesday. A Justice Department veteran, he has served as U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota under two presidential administrations. He first served from 1998 to 2001 and was nominated again in 2009 by President Obama.
With regard to Mr. Burke, Mr. Holder said the Arizona prosecutor had “demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s office, first as a line prosecutor over a decade ago and more recently as U.S. attorney.
“Under his leadership, the office has made great progress in its pursuit of justice with the creation of special units focusing on civil rights enforcement and rule of law, as well as more robust outreach to key communities, particularly in Indian Country,” he said. “The office’s quick response to the devastating shootings in January that claimed the lives of several people and critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was crucial in arresting and charging the alleged shooter.”
Mr. Melson, in a statement, said he was confident his continued work at the Justice Department would contribute to ATF’s pursuit and prosecution of violent criminals.
“ATF employees are hardworking and dedicated to the mission of protecting the public every day, and in my time here I have seen firsthand their extraordinary commitment to stopping violent crime,” he said.
Mr. Holder said Mr. Melson brought “decades of experience at the department and extensive knowledge in forensic science to his new role and I know he will be a valuable contributor on these issues.”
The Fast and Furious operation drew widespread criticism, sparking questions on who outside the agency knew that weapons were being taken from straw buyers in this country to Mexico. Mr. Obama has said he did not authorize the program, and Mr. Holder also has pleaded ignorance, calling for an investigation by the Justice Department’s office of inspector general.
Mr. Issa said the consequences of arming Mexican drug cartels seemed obvious, but as the weapons kept turning up at crime scenes in Mexico, there “wasn’t enough for Justice Department officials to arrest straw purchasers and shut down their trafficking operations.”
At least 122 weapons linked to Fast and Furious have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, according to a report by Mr. Issa and Mr. Grassley. More than 1,000 weapons are still unaccounted for, the report said, including AK-47 assault rifles, Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles, .38-caliber revolvers and FN-57 semiautomatic pistols.