Two Top Justice Department Officials Resign

Two top Justice Department officials resign on the same day as Republicans in Congress vow not to let up on their oversight of a failed law enforcement operation known as Fast and Furious. Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Carrie Johnson for more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Two leading officials at the Justice Department have resigned. They oversaw a failed gun trafficking investigation on the southwest border, an investigation called Fast and Furious. This afternoon, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the top federal prosecutor in Arizona both announced their departure. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to tell us more. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first of all, remind us what this operation Fast and Furious was all about.

JOHNSON: Well, it was designed to stop the flow of guns into Mexico along the southwest border. And prosecutors there really wanted to build big criminal cases against the violent Mexican drug cartels and the people who illegally bought guns and then passed them on to those cartel members. But instead, things went badly wrong. The ATF agents who were surveiling some of these gun shops lost track of many weapons they wound up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including - most explosive - the site of the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry, killed last year - last December.

SIEGEL: I mean, these were weapons that were effectively were tagged by law enforcement so you trace them?

JOHNSON: The problem was, Robert, that they were not mostly tagged by law enforcement. They were observed being bought and sold through visual surveillance but agents sometimes lost track of those weapons and they couldn't necessarily guarantee where they were going.

SIEGEL: Well, what do we know about why things went so wrong with this program?

JOHNSON: Today we learned it was in part a big management problem. And people paid that price with their jobs. The acting director of the ATF, Ken Melson, is out. The U.S. Attorney in Arizona, Denis Burke, is not out. And the attorney general, Eric Holder, says he made a decision that mistakes were made and some people had to pay a price and these two people agreed with him.

SIEGEL: These are some pretty big empty shoes at Justice. ATF is a big agency, the U.S. attorney in Arizona has been leading the prosecution of the man charged with the Tucson shootings earlier this year. Who's going to do those jobs?

JOHNSON: Well, Attorney General Holder has hand-picked somebody he's been very close to for a long time to lead the ATF on an acting basis. That's a guy named Todd Jones, who has been the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota, and he also has a lot of experience in the military justice system. But Todd Jones is going to keep his day job in Minnesota, as well as be the acting director of the ATF. And some people at the ATF told me this afternoon, they're not so happy about that.

SIEGEL: That's a long commute.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: It is a long commute. And hard to keep track of an agency that's so troubled right now and so in need of leadership.

As for Arizona, Denis Burke, the U.S. attorney there, is leaving government service after many years. And he's turned the reins over, at least for now, to his right-hand woman, a woman named Ann Scheel. Prosecutors in that office say this change won't have much, if any, effect on one of their biggest cases, against Jared Loughner, the man who's accused of shooting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

SIEGEL: So, to what extent can we say the book is now closed on Fast and Furious?

JOHNSON: Not so fast. Congressional Republicans are saying this afternoon that there's plenty of blame to spread around and they intend to keep asking important questions. Darrell Issa, a California Republican lawmaker who leads the House Government Reform Committee, says he wants to know who else at the Justice Department was asleep at the switch here and not watching and monitoring closely enough this gun-trafficking investigation. He suspects that people very high up at the Justice Department may have been involved but he hasn't offered any documents or testimony about that, at least not yet.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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