July 7, 2011 in News
ATF implicates FBI in Mexico gun-trafficking probe (San Francisco Chronicle):
The embattled head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has told congressional investigators that some Mexican drug cartel figures targeted by his agency in a gun-trafficking investigation were paid informants for the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.
Kenneth E. Melson, the ATF’s acting director, has been under pressure to resign after the agency allowed guns to be purchased in the United States in hopes they would be traced to cartel leaders. Under the gun-trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious, the ATF lost track of the guns, and many were found at the scenes of crimes in Mexico, as well as two that were recovered near Nogales, Ariz., where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed.
In two days of meetings with congressional investigators over the weekend, Melson said the FBI and DEA kept the ATF “in the dark” about their relationships with the cartel informants. If ATF agents had known of the relationships, the agency might have ended the investigation much earlier, he said.
As a result of Melson’s statements, “our investigation has clearly expanded,” a source close to the congressional investigation said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing. “We know now it was not something limited to just a small group of ATF agents in Arizona.”
“This whole misguided operation might have been cut short if not for catastrophic failures to share key information,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista (San Diego County), and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, told Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter Tuesday.
Ronald Welch, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, responded that Justice Department officials were still discussing how to provide any “sensitive law enforcement information” regarding the FBI and DEA to congressional investigators. Without specifically acknowledging that cartel leaders were paid informants, he said their main focus is “how best to protect ongoing investigations.”
Congressman Darrell Issa and Senator Charles E. Grassley Letter to Attorney General Eric Holder (house.gov):
Yesterday, Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson participated in a transcribed interview regarding Operation Fast and Furious and related matters with both Republican and Democratic staff. He appeared with his personal counsel, Richard Cullen of McGuire Woods LLP. His interview had originally been scheduled through the Justice Department to occur on July 13 in the presence of DOJ and ATF counsel. As you know, however, under our agreement Department 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.
After being made aware of that provision of our agreement, Acting Director Melson chose to exercise that right and appeared with his own lawyer. We are 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. This is yet another example of why direct communications with Congress are so important and are protected by law.
The Role of DEA, FBI, and Other Agencies
When confronted with information about serious issues involving lack of information sharing by other agencies, which Committee staff had originally learned from other witnesses, Mr. Melson’s responses tended to corroborate what others had said. 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. The Acting Director said that ATF was kept in the dark about certain activities of other agencies, including DEA and FBI. Mr. Melson said that he learned from ATF agents in the field that information obtained by these agencies could have had a material impact on the Fast and Furious investigation as far back as late 2009 or early 2010. After learning about the possible role of DEA and FBI, he testified that he reported this information in April 2011 to the Acting Inspector General and directly to then-Acting Deputy Attorney General James Cole on June 16, 2011.
The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in such activities. While this is preliminary information, we must find out if there is any truth to it. According to Acting Director Melson, he became aware of this startling possibility only after the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and the indictments of the straw purchasers, which we now know were substantially delayed by the u.s. Attorney’s Office and Main Justice. Mr. Melson provided documents months ago supporting his concerns to the official in the ODAG responsible for document production to the Committees, but those documents have not been provided to us.
It is one thing to argue that the ends justify the means in an attempt to defend a policy that puts building a big case ahead of stopping known criminals from getting guns. Yet it is a much more serious matter to conceal from Congress the possible involvement of other agencies in identifying and maybe even working with the same criminals that Operation Fast and Furious was trying to identify. If this information is accurate, then the whole misguided operation might have been cut short if not for catastrophic failures to share key information. If agencies within the same Department, co-located at the same facilities, had simply communicated with one another, then ATF might have known that gun trafficking “higher-ups” had been already identified. This raises new and serious questions about the role of DEA, FBI, the United States Attorney’s Office in Arizona, and Main Justice in coordinating this effort. Nearly a decade after the September 11th attacks, the stovepipes of information within our government may still be causing tragic mistakes long after they should have been broken down.
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