John Solomon has scooped me again. I heard a single report about this late yesterday and I hesitated to run with it without confirmation.
Embattled ATF director Kenneth Melson gave a surprise July 4 interview to Congress, disclosing new lapses in a bungled gun sting that allowed U.S. guns to be trafficked to Mexican drug gangs . . .
In a secret deposition on the Fourth of July, the embattled head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives confirmed to congressional investigators new potential lapses in a bungled U.S. gun trafficking sting that has stirred controversy on both sides of the Mexican border, according to people familiar with the interview.
While many Americans celebrated over barbecues and fireworks, acting ATF director Kenneth Melson arrived Monday with a private attorney on Capitol Hill for the interview, the sources said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.
During hours of questioning, Melson told investigators for the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he has recently learned that other federal agencies may have withheld crucial information about possible drug cartel connections to the gun trafficking ring that his agency had tried to crack during a 15-month operation that used controversial tactics, the sources said.
Melson is the highest-ranking official to testify in the congressional inquiry into why an ATF gun trafficking operation codenamed “Fast and Furious” let suspected straw buyers purchase semiautomatic weapons at U.S. gun stores with the expectation they would flow south of the border into Mexico’s raging drug and gun wars.
His testimony about possible lapses in information sharing among the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and ATF in the war on drugs sounded eerily similar to communication breakdowns that hampered the government’s ability to piece together prior warning signs before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the sources said.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter late Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder laying out concerns raised by Melson’s testimony, the sources said.
What horseshit. He wasn't told? Does he really think that this Sergeant Shultz Defense is going to stand up? When he was watching this shit unfold on the Internet via webcam?
And amid rumors and media speculation that Melson could soon be removed from his job, the two Republican lawmakers told Holder they thought any immediate personnel action against the acting ATF chief would be imprudent given the nature of information he has just disclosed, the sources said.
A longtime career federal official, Melson serves in a political appointment as the acting head of ATF and thus does not enjoy the same whistleblower protections as civil servants. The lawmakers’ letter was designed to serve notice that Congress now considers Melson a key witness in their investigation of the bungled gun sting, the sources said.
The ATF boss had agreed late last month to be interviewed by congressional investigators and a deposition was slated for mid- to late July. But in conversations over the long holiday weekend, Melson agreed to move up the interview, the sources said.
Pressured from all sides, Melson goes to the committee with his own "modified, limited hangout."
In his interview, Melson said most of the operational decisions for the Fast and Furious operation were approved by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, which was leading a special strike force on gun trafficking, and that even he didn’t know about the specific orders to let straw buyers walk off with guns until after the controversy erupted, according to the sources.
He told the investigators he has subsequently learned that ATF agents during the operation did observe straw buyers transferring guns they had purchased to third parties, a possible legal violation, but did not interdict the weapons at the instructions of their immediate supervisors, the sources added.
Under questioning, Melson confirmed information the congressional investigators had received elsewhere that DEA and FBI had information about possible cartel connections to the gun trafficking ring under investigation but did not share it with ATF at the time. He expressed his own concerns about the flow of information from other agencies during a critical time in the war against Mexican border violence, the sources said.
Congressional investigators now want to know whether any of the players belatedly disclosed to the ATF had been working as assets or informants for other federal agencies, the sources said.
Melson also disclosed the existence of documents about the ATF case that have not yet been turned over to congressional investigators, the sources added.
What my source said yesterday: "Melson was too cute by half. He tried to protect himself without giving up too much." That is consistent with what Solomon writes above. How did the investigators react? I asked. Were they pissed? "You don't pull in a big fish all at once, you take up every slack in the line he gives you until you're ready to gaff him. These are patient fishermen."
Still, I said, if the questioning was in any way competent, Melson had to have given up more than he wanted to. His reply?
"You bet your ass he did."
Leading to other agencies and higher ups? I asked.
"You bet your ass he did. Laterally and vertically. . . They're peeling back the onion."
If, as this story suggests, the straw buyers and smugglers were informants or operatives of the DEA and FBI, unbeknown to the ATF, the Gunwalker conspiracy just got broader, higher and more evil. What Melson is suggesting here, beyond embracing his own incompetence in favor of his own culpability, is that the ATF was the unwitting tool in a larger conspiracy. "Just shut up, let the guns walk and track them after they turn up in Mexico, and other people will handle what happens in the middle."
Melson's claim is nothing less than a declaration of war on the FBI and DEA, and they will defend themselves. Expect more revelations to come from that internecine process. If Melson is right, it also implicates DHS, the National Security Agency and the White House, for the larger operation would not, could not, have proceeded without authorization and coordination from the top.
Dan Restrepo, call your office.
LATER: Here's the House Committee press release:
ATF Director Testifies on Operation Targeting Gun Smugglers
DEA and FBI may have failed to share key information on informants
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Monday, July 4, ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson testified before investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee about Operation Fast and Furious. Following this interview, Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, expressed their deep concerns about the involvement of the DEA, FBI, and other agencies – including the possibility that they were aware of and even working with people connected to Fast and Furious suspects.
In addition to these concerns noted in the letter to the Attorney General, Acting Director Melson made key assertions to investigators:
* Contrary to denials by the Justice Department, Acting Director Melson acknowledged the agents had in fact witnessed transfers of weapons from straw purchasers to third parties without following the guns any further.
* The ATF group executing Operation Fast and Furious had been placed under the direction of the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office.
Here's the PDF of the Grassley/Issa letter to arch-criminal Holder.