Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) have been keen to discuss the scandalous “Operation Fast and Furious” with Acting ATF Director Ken Melson. Previous testimony by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has painted Melson in a very poor light. Stunned investigators heard accounts of Melson watching straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels purchasing American guns via closed-circuit TV, and all but cackling with joy.
Melson, who after all was a “temporary” appointee, looked like the perfect fall guy for the operation. Instead, Melson decided he would like to cooperate with House Oversight and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Procedure dictated that he required permission from the Justice Department to testify, so a deal was struck with Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT), in which Grassley would allow three Obama Administration nominations to move forward, in exchange for access to Melson and other witnesses.
Why was it necessary to purchase the co-operation of Democrats in such a vital investigation, with profound national security implications, and over 150 dead – including both Mexicans and Americans?
At any rate, the Justice Department agreed to let Melson testify, and a tentative date of July 13 was scheduled.
But here’s a funny little fact: It turns out that under an agreement reached between Congress and the DOJ, “witnesses who choose to attend a voluntary interview with their own lawyer are free to exercise that right rather than participate with counsel representing the Department’s interests.”
I did not know that. Neither, apparently, did Ken Melson, because Issa and Grassley wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, saying they were “disappointed that no one had previously informed him of that provision of the agreement.” Instead, “Justice Department officials sought to limit and control his communications with Congress.”
Happily, “after being made aware of that provision of our agreement, Acting Director Melson chose to exercise that right and appeared with his own lawyer.” That’s right – Melson already testified. He did it on the Fourth of July, in fact.
How did it go? Issa and Grassley assured Attorney General Holder that “Acting Director Melson’s cooperation was extremely helpful to our investigation.” Uh-oh.
Melson claims he was personally in the dark about the full extent of the Gun Walker program until public controversy erupted, and was “sick to his stomach” when he reviewed the Reports of Investigation. This might be hard to square with some of the agent testimony given before Issa’s committee, but it also sounds like Melson has lost all interest in falling on his sword.
Melson claims he was directed by Justice Department officials to avoid cooperating with Congress. “If his account is accurate,” Issa and Grassley told Holder, “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.”
Melson’s testimony confirmed the dark suspicions of Congressional investigators that Operation Fast and Furious was never intended to work the way it was advertised. “Specifically, we 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,” Issa and Grassley stated.
In other words, this was never about letting American guns “walk” to shadowy Mexican drug kingpins, leaving a trail of bullets that ATF could follow. Also, this means agencies other than ATF were involved in the Gun Walker outrage… which means the Acting ATF Director’s potential usefulness as a firewall to protect superiors, such as Eric Holder, has just about come to an end.
Melson claims the initial reports that he would be asked to resign his position are “untrue,” but mysterious “unnamed sources” began pushing such rumors into the media “two days after he told Acting Deputy Attorney General Cole about serious issues involving lack of information sharing.” It sounds like the Administration knows how to build a good, sturdy layer of plausible deniability.
Issa and Grassley have not yet revealed any more details of Melson’s testimony, but they did conclude their letter to Holder with a remarkably stern warning:
Any decision about Mr. Melson’s future with the Department would need to be justified solely on the basis of the facts and the needs of the agency, rather than on his decision to speak to us. We encourage you to communicate to us any additional significant information about any such decision so that we can work together to ensure that it would not impede our investigation.
For now, the Office of Inspector General is still conducting its review, and we are still conducting ours. 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.
It sounds like the late stages of Ken Melson’s career at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives will be very exciting. How often do Congressional committees explicitly tell the Justice Department to forget about using high officials as “fall guys?”