Pubdate: Sat, 18 Jun 2011
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Authors: Evan Perez and Devlin Barrett


The Justice Department is expected to oust the head of the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to people
familiar with the matter, amid a troubled federal antitrafficking
operation that has grown into the agency's biggest scandal in nearly
two decades.

Moves toward the replacement of Kenneth Melson, acting ATF director
since April 2009, could begin next week, although the precise sequence
of events remains to be decided, these people said.

The shakeup shows the extent of the political damage caused by the
gun-trafficking operation called Fast and Furious, which used tactics
that allowed suspected smugglers to buy large numbers of firearms.
Growing controversy over the program has paralyzed a long-beleaguered
agency buffeted by partisan battles. The ATF has been without a
Senate-confirmed director since 2006, with both the Bush and Obama
administrations unable to overcome opposition from gun-rights groups
to win approval of nominees.

In November, President Barack Obama nominated Andrew Traver, the head
of the ATF's Chicago office, as permanent ATF director. The nomination
stalled in the Senate after the National Rifle Association said Mr.
Traver had a "demonstrated hostility" to the rights of gun owners.

Mr. Traver is set to travel to Washington on Tuesday to meet with
Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole,
the people said. The administration is weighing whether to name Mr.
Traver as acting director or choose another interim chief while
awaiting Senate action on his nomination, they said.

ATF spokesman Scot Thomasson said: "Acting Director Kenneth Melson
continues to be focused on leading ATF in its efforts to reduce
violent crime and to stem the flow of firearms to criminals and
criminal organizations. We are not going to comment on any

Mr. Melson is the most senior official so far implicated in a
congressional probe of the Fast and Furious operation. The ATF Phoenix
office ran the program in 2009-2010 to monitor weapons purchases by
suspected gun smugglers. Agency officials hoped eventually to build a
case against major arms smugglers serving Mexican drug cartels. The
ATF has struggled to stanch the flow of U.S. weapons to Mexican drug

At a House hearing this week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman
of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, disclosed internal
documents showing that Mr. Melson was closely involved in managing
Fast and Furious operation. One email among ATF officials described
Mr. Melson's request for an Internet link to hidden cameras the ATF
had planted in gun shops cooperating with the operation, Mr. Issa
said, citing the documents. That allowed Mr. Melson to watch a live
feed of suspected "straw buyers," who purchase firearms on behalf of
others, buying AK-47-style rifles, he said.

Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) are leading the
congressional probe of Fast and Furious, which came to light after an
Arizona shootout in December that killed a U.S. border agent. Two
assault weapons bought in a gun shop that was part of the operation
were found at the scene. The shooter and the gun used to kill the
agent haven't been identified. A Mexican national is charged in the

Republican lawmakers say the agency was "reckless" in running the
program and should have known that at least some of the thousands of
weapons would end up in Mexico or be used in crimes in the U.S.

The office of the Justice Department's inspector general is
investigating the matter.

Fast and Furious has grown into the agency's worst crisis since the
ATF's 1993 raid on a religious sect in Waco, Texas, which triggered a
gunbattle that killed four ATF agents. The fallout from the raid and
subsequent government assault on the sect's compound led to years of
recriminations and investigations of the ATF.

The Fast and Furious operation caused dissent in the ATF Phoenix
office, according to three ATF agents who testified at a House hearing
Wednesday. The agents said they battled supervisors who insisted on
doing surveillance instead of arresting suspected straw buyers.

Despite the Justice Department's internal probe, the hearing helped
cement the view among top Justice Department officials that Mr. Melson
needed to be moved out before pressure from lawmakers grew more
intense, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Ronald Weich, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs,
testified at this week's hearing but gave few details of the program.
Mr. Weich said that if the investigation found "flawed strategies" or
"insufficient surveillance of weapons," the responsible officials
would be held to account.

The ATF is at the forefront of the government's efforts to stem the
flow of what both the U.S. and Mexican governments say is a flood of
U.S. arms to Mexican cartels. ATF agents say stopping that flow is
often complicated by gun-owning traditions, particularly in border
states, and laws that make it difficult to prosecute illegal weapons

Gun-rights groups, which dispute that the U.S. is a major source of
firearms trafficked to Mexico, have criticized ATF attempts to
increase regulation of gun purchases. At the same time, the Obama
administration has been under pressure from big-city mayors and others
who favor tighter restrictions.

In a 2010 audit, the Justice Department inspector general criticized
the ATF for pursuing too many small-buyer cases and not using its
resources to find major gun traffickers.

It's unclear how the current controversy will affect the
administration's chances of winning Senate confirmation for Mr.
Traver. Mr. Traver is a 24-year ATF veteran investigator and former
Navy officer. As the head of the ATF office in Chicago, he made a
priority of pursuing gang cases. In particular, he focused on pursuing
street gangs that had spread from urban areas into the suburbs,
according to people who have worked with him.

Some ATF agents believe the scandal could help highlight how
Congress's refusal to approve an ATF leader contributes to the
agency's troubles.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, in response to questions Friday,
said, "I can tell you that, as the president has already said, he did
not know about or authorize this operation." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D