Melson’s decision, which took ATF and Justice Department officials by surprise, was the latest fallout from the Fast and Furious sting. That now-defunct operation targeted Mexican gun traffickers, but it has been linked to the killing of a Border Patrol officer. Congressional Republicans have criticized ATF over the operation and are pushing to learn whether senior Justice Department officials were involved.
The transcript of Melson’s interview has not been publicly released, but people familiar with it said that the ATF leader indicated that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. did not know about the operation, that it would be unusual for other Justice Department officials in Washington to know the details and that the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix was overseeing the program.
Yet the ATF chief also said he moved to reassign managers involved in Fast and Furious and became “sick to his stomach” upon learning “the full story” of the operation, according to a letter sent Tuesday to Holder by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). They are leading the congressional probe.
Issa and Grassley added in their letter, released Wednesday, that Melson said that he and other ATF officials wanted to cooperate more with Congress but that the Justice Department, which oversees the agency, prevented that.
“ATF leadership appears to have been effectively muzzled while the DOJ sent over false denials and buried its head in the sand,” the lawmakers wrote. “That approach distorted the truth and obstructed our investigation.”
That triggered a sharp response from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, who wrote in a letter to the two Republicans that the department has produced or made available for review more than 2,000 pages of documents. “Regrettably, your letter unfairly criticizes both the Department’s efforts to address the Committee’s concerns and the integrity of the professionals at the department who have worked long hours to make responsive information available to you,’’ Weich said Wednesday.
The Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating the allegations surrounding the operation. Robert Sherwood, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix, said Wednesday, “The U.S. attorney’s office gives case-related legal advice to federal agencies, it doesn’t direct them. ATF agents and their tactical decisions are all supervised by ATF.”