ATF Acting Director Ken Melson’s testimony shows just how far the DOJ has gone to impede the investigation and to protect political appointees.
July 20, 2011 – 9:13 am – by Patrick Richardson
Attorney General Eric Holder continues to duck responsibility for Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed more than 2,500 weapons, including thousands of AK-47 variants and .50 caliber sniper rifles, across the Mexican border and into the hands of the cartels. The weapons were used to murder Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and an estimated 150 Mexican nationals.In May of this year, Holder was calledto testify in front of Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to answer questions about the program — which Holder claimed he’d first heard of in the media.Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-IA), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have been complaining for months now that the Department of Justice has been obstructing the investigation, to the degree of possible witness tampering.Holder’s Justice Department finally responded to a letter from Issa and Grassley. But according to a new letterfrom them, Holder is merely continuing to obfuscate, a fact underscored by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting Director Ken Melson initially being prevented from briefing or testifying to Congress, as his eventual personal testimony states.According to the latest release from Issa and Grassley:
“It was very frustrating to all of us, and it appears thoroughly to us that the Department is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the Department,” ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson said of his frustration with the Justice Department’s response to the investigation in a transcribed interview.
Indeed, Melson’s testimony makes it clear he feared the consequences of not coming clean from the beginning, as Issa and Grassley state in their letter:
[A]fter receiving [Senator Grassley's initial] letter, our first instinct and intuition was to directly march over to Senator Grassley’s office and brief him on what Fast and Furious was for purposes of explaining the concept and the role it played and how it got there, and where ATF was going in it. And we expressed that desire to the [Deputy Attorney General]‘s office.
The DOJ did not permit Mr. Melson to brief Senator Grassley. Instead, the Department devised a strategy to withhold information from the senator. Mr. Melson testified further:
I sat in [the office of the Associate Deputy Attorney General with responsibility for ATF] one day when they were writing the letter to Senator Grassley about him being only a ranking member and not the chair of the committee. I sat there across the desk from [him], as I recall, and said, this is really just poking [Senator Grassley] in the eye. What’s the sense of doing this? Even if you say you can’t give it to him, he’s going to get it through the back door anyhow, so why are we aggravating this situation.
Congress had demanded answers as far back as February 10, and was possibly lied to in an open hearing:
Instead of providing Congress answers from the individuals best-positioned to provide them, Mr. Melson and his staff were muzzled. The decision to withhold information at the earliest sign of congressional interest set the Justice Department on a course that required Congress to aggressively pursue testimony and documents elsewhere. As you now know, this was entirely avoidable. The Department’s leadership chose to protect its own interests at the expense of exposing the leadership of a subordinate agency to Congressional scrutiny.
While Congress waited, ATF’s senior leaders examined how and why Fast and Furious happened. Mr. Melson and his staff identified institutional problems. They concluded that the Phoenix Field Division needed new supervision and reassigned every manager involved in Fast and Furious. Mr. Melson wanted to share this important development with Congress to show that ATF was taking the allegations seriously. The Department resisted. Mr. Melson observed that “[t]he [Deputy Attorney General's] office wasn’t very happy with us, because they thought this was an admission that there were mistakes made. Well, there were some mistakes made.” (Emphasis in original)
The DOJ went so far as to refrain from telling Melson he had not just the option, but the right to appear before Congress without a DOJ handler and with his own attorney. Issa’s staff had to tell Melson this.
Even more damning, DOJ not only prevented Melson from testifying before Congress, they prevented him from communicating with his own department:
Part of the problem, and one of the things that frustrated me was that I have not been allowed to communicate to the troops about anything. So, for example, earlier on, I wanted to do a broadcast that just talked about the case, because everybody was wondering what’s this case about? What are you doing at headquarters? How come you were not issuing press releases and how come you were not ordering press conferences and pushing back and things like that? And I was told not to do that.
Then after we wanted to do several things to talk to our people about what this case was about, what it wasn’t about, and you know, where we were going and the fact that we were cooperating as much as we could with the committee and with the Department, but we were restrained from doing that. And even after your hearings on the — was it the 16th or whatever that Wednesday was, we wanted to do the same thing, and they said, well, let us read it first. So we finally drafted something and sent it over to them. I don’t know whether we ever got it back, but it has restrained our ability to work with our people.
Melson’s testimony also makes clear DOJ is trying to protect political appointees:
But I think the way it was handled went sideways and it could have been avoided with perhaps a more thoughtful approach to what was going on instead of such a strident approach to it. I think there could have been accommodations made between the Hill and ATF and DOJ as to how information was shared. It was very frustrating to all of us, and it appears thoroughly to us that the Department is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the Department.
This is an understatement of British proportion. There are ten pages to this letter, and far more information. It’s clear that there has been a concerted effort by Eric Holder’s DOJ to block the congressional investigation and to protect political appointees, plus a willingness to throw anyone who doesn’t fall directly in line to the wolves.
They’ve also been happy to use the failed operation to push for more gun control.
Yet Issa and Grassley do not appear inclined to back down until all of the answers are public.