Officials Held Accountable For 'Fast And Furious'

Two top Justice Department officials abruptly left their jobs Tuesday after a botched investigation targeting gun smugglers. The acting Head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Kenneth Melson, and the U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke were associated with an operation called Fast and Furious.

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Two top Justice Department officials abruptly left their jobs yesterday -acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Kenneth Melson and the U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke. Both were associated with a gun tracking operation that's called Fast and Furious. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

TED ROBBINS: When Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered last December near the border in Arizona, his colleagues found two guns at the scene. The weapons were purchased illegally from a Phoenix gun shop while the ATF watched. It was part of an operation to follow illegal gun purchases into Mexico and lead agents to Mexican drug cartels.

Thousands of weapons ended up with the cartels. But, the ATF had lost track of them. If not for the two found after Agent Terry was killed, it's possible no one outside the Justice Department would have learned about the failed Operation Fast and Furious.

But ATF field agents complained to Congress, saying their concerns had been ignored. Earlier this year, a panel of agents, including Peter Forcelli, testified publically.

Mr. PETER FORCELLI (Supervisory Special Agent, ATF): It's my belief that what we have here is actually a colossal failure in leadership from within ATF, within the chain of command involved in this case, within the United States Attorneys office and within DOJ as to the individuals who are aware of this strategy.

ROBBINS: There was no direct acknowledgement of Fast and Furious in Attorney General Eric Holder's statement announcing Melson and Burke's departures Tuesday. Holder reassigned Melson to another job and thanked Dennis Burke for his service as U.S. Attorney.

But Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa says the Justice Department's action is an admission that serious mistakes were made and that people need to be held accountable.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): If heads don't roll, nothing changes in the culture of a bureaucracy.

ROBBINS: Grassley is investigating Fast and Furious in the Senate, while Republican Darrell Issa of California is investigating it in the House. I asked Issa if Burke and Melson are just fall guys for others.

Representative DARRELL ISSA (Republican, California): If we go no further, then, yes, they're fall guys.

ROBBINS: Issa says neither Burke nor Melson was in a position to start or fund the operation. In fact, Issa says Melson only found out about Fast and Furious after it had gone wrong.

Rep. ISSA: And he gave us some very strong testimony on what he did to try to stop this program when he knew enough to know that guns were going deliberately to the worst of the worst of the drug cartels.

ROBBINS: Issa says he'll call Dennis Burke back to finish his testimony in a few weeks, despite Burke's resignation. Senator Grassley says his investigation is nowhere near done.

Sen. GRASSLEY: Well, it's going to go on for me until I find out who the highest person in the administration - and that means either Justice or the White House - was involved with this decision to go ahead with this stupid thing that we call Fast and Furious. That's where I'm headed for.

ROBBINS: And if Congress doesn't get answers, it's possible they'll come in court. Phoenix attorney Lincoln Combs is representing the family of murdered Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in a possible lawsuit against the government. Combs says two officials leaving their jobs does nothing to help his clients.

Mr. LINCOLN COMBS (Attorney): Doesn't bring us anymore answers as far as finding, you know, out what the government's roll was in Operation Fast And Furious and how those weapons ended up in Brian's murderers' hands.

ROBBINS: As for the ATF, Attorney General Holder replaced Kenneth Melson with B. Todd Jones, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota. For now, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona will be Ann Scheel, Dennis Burke's first assistant.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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