Today's Washington Post and New York Times report that the embattled head of the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Ken Melson, met with congressional staffers last weekend to explain his role in the tragically botched "Fast and Furious" sting operation.
Intended to allow the U.S. to track guns to Mexican drug cartels by knowingly letting guns across the U.S./Mexico border (whose brilliant idea was that?), the now-abandoned "Fast and Furious" operation came under criticism after two guns linked to the operation resurfaced in an Arizona shootout that killed a U.S. Border Patrol Agent.
Reporting on Melson's interview with a bi-partisan group of congressional staffers in a letter to Attorney General Holder, Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Charles Grassley (R-IA) and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) accuse the Justice Department of implementing an approach which "distorted the truth" and "obstructed our investigation." The letter accuses the Justice Department of
"effectively muzzl[ing]" ATF leadership while "DOJ sent over [to Congress] false denials and buried its head in the sand."
As if bringing a record number of Espionage Act prosecutions against so-called "leakers"--who more often than not are whistleblowers--wasn't enough to silence internal dissent within the Obama administration . . . now, the Justice Department itself is implicated in silencing employees who sought to cooperate with a congressional investigation.
According to the letter from Grassley and Issa, Melson claimed:
ATF's senior leadership would have preferred to be more cooperative with [the congressional] inquiry much earlier in process
but that the Justice Department
directed [ATF senior leadership] not to respond and took full control of replying to briefing and document requests from Congress.
The critical information Melson alleges was hidden from Congress: that the FBI and DEA were deeply involved in the operation, which, according to Grassely and Issa,
raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging such activities.
The case is not without wrinkles of the classic whistleblower retaliation that occurs all too often in an agency cover-up. According to the Issa/Grassley letter:
. . . two days after [Melson] told Acting Deputy Attorney General Cole about serious issues involving lack of information sharing, the Wall Street Journal reported that unnamed sources said that Melson was about to be ousted.
My organization, the Government Accountability Project, has repeatedly highlighted (here, here, and here) Cole's history of questionable conduct while he was Compliance Office of the American International Group (AIG).
The "Fast and Furious" scandal began with ATF agents who blew the whistle to Congress after the Arizona shootout. A Congressional report issued last month found that ATF leadership in Arizona and Washington ignored early criticism from ATF agents:
ATF agents complained about the strategy . . . [but] [l]eadership ignored their concerns. Instead supervisors told the agents to "get with the program" because senior ATF officials had sanctioned the operation.The Congressional report also states that "the original whistleblower who exposed Operation Fast and Furious," Special Agent John Dodson,
was removed from Phoenix Group VII [the group focusing on firearms trafficking] in the summer of 2010 for complaining to ATF supervisors about the dangerous tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious.
These indicators of whistleblowing reprisal - a misguided program, ignoring concerns of employees, reprisal for speaking out, a mandate to "fall in line" - and the tragic consequences - the Arizona shootout - are all too typical in agencies' bureaucracies, and should not be tolerated. Despite campaign promises to protect whistleblowers, it appears that, once again, the Obama administration has failed them. Yet, Melton's latest allegations of concealment prove that it is not the crime, but the cover-up of the "Fast and Furious" operation that continues to haunt Holder and the Obama administration.