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ATF's acting director resisting pressure to step down

WASHINGTON — The acting director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is strongly resisting pressure to step down because of growing controversy over the agency's surveillance program that allowed U.S. guns to flow unchecked into Mexico, according to a report from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Kenneth E. Melson, who has run the bureau for two years, is said to be eager to testify to Congress about the extent of his and other officials' involvement in the operation, code named Fast and Furious.

Melson does not want to be the fall guy for the program under which ATF agents allowed purchasers to acquire more than 1,700 AK-47s and other high-powered rifles from Arizona gun dealers, according to the McClatchy-Tribune report, which cited several unnamed federal sources.

Earlier this week, Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said he hopes that Melson gives a full accounting of how the gun operation was conceived and carried out.

He also said Melson "should" resign, and that other senior leaders at ATF and the Justice Department also should be held accountable.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also is awaiting answers from Melson, and cautioned this week that even if the acting director does step down, it "would be, by no means, the end of our inquiry."

The Justice Department said it is cooperating with the congressional leaders.

At a House hearing last week, testimony from ATF agents portrayed Melson as being closely involved in overseeing the venture.

At one point, according to documents released by Congress, he asked for and received log-in information and a link to an Internet feed in order to watch some of the illegal purchases.

Issa and ATF whistle-blowers who protested to no avail with their supervisors in Arizona say the number of Fast and Furious guns still unaccounted for could top 1,000.

But authorities are telling Congress the numbers could be far lower. NPR reported that documents it had obtained and provided to lawmakers suggest that 568 weapons tied to Fast and Furious have been located: 372 in the United States and 196 more in Mexico.

On Friday, Issa was to travel with a bipartisan delegation to Mexico, partly in an attempt to draw the government there further into the investigation. In a letter this week to Mexico's U.S. ambassador, Issa and Grassley requested serial numbers of all firearms recovered in "substantial" violent crimes, along with the numbers of any other weapons that government officials have reason to believe may be connected to the Fast and Furious operation.

"This information would be tremendously helpful to us in determining the full scale of the effects of Operation Fast and Furious, which includes the deaths of both Mexican and American citizens," the two lawmakers wrote.

Issa will be joined by eight other U.S. lawmakers for meetings today in Mexico City at the federal police command center and also with representatives of the U.S. embassy.

Information from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

What is Fast and Furious?

Fast and Furious, a multi-agency law enforcement operation led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was designed to monitor the illegal sale and transfer of guns from the United States to Mexican drug cartels. At a House Oversight Committee hearing, ATF agents told lawmakers that instead of arresting the small-time buyers, they were instructed to stand by and watch to see where the guns went in an effort to build a case against bigger arms dealers. Doing so, however, meant that U.S. guns wound up in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels. And after Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered in a shootout along the Arizona-Mexico border in December, two weapons found on the scene were linked to the program. The Los Angeles Times and Fox News Channel also reported two AK-47s sold in Arizona during the operation had been found at the scene of a shootout in Mexico with suspects connected to the death of a prominent Mexican lawyer.

ATF's acting director resisting pressure to step down 06/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 24, 2011 10:02pm]
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