House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) yesterday announced the "personnel changes" for three officials involved in the law enforcement snafu known as "Operation Fast and Furious." However, many observers believe the three officials are merely scapegoats being sacrificed to protect the more powerful in the U.S. capital.
The Department of Justice personnel changes impacted Arizona's U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting Director Kenneth Melson, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley.
The DOJ announced that acting ATF director Kenneth Melson, who began his agency leadership in 2009, was being replaced and transferred to the Office of Legal Policy. The ATF announcement coincided with a DOJ announcement that the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, was resigning. Burke oversaw the legal aspects of the Fast and Furious operation, providing advice to the law enforcement agents involved. Meanwhile, Hurley resigned from his post.
“In my opinion, Melson and Burke weren’t fired because if they were unemployed or disgraced they’d be more likely to cooperate with investigators still probing one of the worst law enforcement scandals in recent history,” said former police officer Edie Aquino from New York.
While Issa is garnering praise for these personnel changes, observers in law enforcement and government believe the men involved are being scapegoated and "taking the heat for higher-ups" such as Attorney General Eric Holder and his senior staff members. Both President Barack Obama and Attorney General Holder have said they did not approve the operation, but have declined to comment further, citing an independent investigation by DOJ’s inspector general.
However, Congressman Issa pledged Tuesday to continue his investigation until a full picture of the operation and its authorizers is painted.
"While the reckless disregard for safety that took place in Operation Fast and Furious certainly merits changes within the Department of Justice, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee will continue its investigation to ensure that blame isn't offloaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department," Issa said in a press statement.
"There are still many questions to be answered about what happened in Operation Fast and Furious and who else bears responsibility, but these changes are warranted and offer an opportunity for the Justice Department to explain the role other officials and offices played in the infamous efforts to allow weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels." Issa said.
"I also remain very concerned by Acting Director Melson's statement that the Department of Justice is managing its response in a manner intended to protect its political appointees. Senator Grassley and I will continue to press the Department of Justice for answers in order to ensure that a reckless effort like Fast and Furious does not take place again," he added.
Tuesday’s announcement proved many of Issa's suspicions, but he expressed concern that Melson and Burke not be made fallguys for others in DOJ -- or even the White House -- who may be responsible for the ill-fated operation that allegedly contributed to the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Also on Tuesday, DOJ announced the appointment of U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota B. Todd Jones to serve as Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
"As a seasoned prosecutor and former military judge advocate, U.S. Attorney Jones is a demonstrated leader who brings a wealth of experience to this position," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "I have great confidence that he will be a strong and steady influence guiding ATF in fulfilling its mission of combating violent crime by enforcing federal criminal laws and regulations in the firearms and explosives industries."
Operation Fast and Furious: An Ill-Conceived Fiasco
Operation Fast and Furious was initiated in 2009 to sell weapons to known and suspected straw purchasers for Mexican drug cartels with the goal of tracking the guns and dismantling the gun trafficking routes.
But agents claim they were sometimes told to abandon surveillance of the weapons, allowing firearms --and the buyers -- to disappear, according to testimony from numerous agents before the House. The only remaining hope for agents to track the guns was if other agencies found them at a murder scene or during a drug raid and identified them by the serial numbers on the guns.
Officials linked two weapons found at the Arizona murder scene last December of Agent Brian Terry. According to testimony, the ATF agents were -- and still are -- terrified that some of the thousands of guns that remain at large will be used to kill more innocent people.
In addition, the Mexican police investigators who probed the killing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Agent Jaime Zapata, who was assassinated by members of the Los Zetas drug cartel attack in Mexico, believe one of the Fast and Furious guns was used in that attack.
Yet, with such a deadly scandal no one in either the Democrat or Republican Parties are calling for a special prosecutor to investigate this case of politics trumping public safety, said another former cop.
"Most of the mainstream media are yawning over this serious scandal. It's certainly more serious than the Valerie Plame investigation that was a farce from the very beginning. Yet, the media hammered President Bush and his underlings on a daily basis. No one died in that scandal. People did die in Operation Fast and Furious. Yet no one mentions Obama's or Holder's names," stated former intelligence officer and police commander Sid Franes.