Conflict & Justice

ATF chief reassigned amid gun operation controversy

The acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been reassigned as part of a wider Justice Department shake-up in the wake of a controversial gun-trafficking operation.

ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson will become a senior advisor on forensic science in the Justice Dept.'s Office of Legal Policy. Meanwhile, Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, whose office was deeply involved in the operation, has resigned and an assistant U.S. Attorney in Phoenix, Emory Hurley, is being transferred to the office's civil division.

The moves come amid investigations into an operation, known as Fast and Furious, which was "designed to track small-time gun buyers at several Phoenix-area gun shops up the chain to make cases against major weapons traffickers," according to the Associated Press. The operation became the target of a congressional investigation after guns used in the program were found at the scene where a Border Patrol agent was killed last year. The AP reports that the investigation turned up evidence that ATF lost track of many of the more than 2,000 guns used in the program. Attorney General Eric Holder has also asked the Justice Department's Inspector General to look into the operation.

In July, an ATF intelligence analyst told the House Oversight and Government Reform committee that around 1,400 guns linked to Fast and Furious have not been recovered.

The Washington Post called Tuesday's changes "an extraordinary shake-up for a Justice Department that has been under fire for the gun-trafficking probe, which critics consider ATF’s biggest debacle since the deadly 1993 confrontation in Waco, Tex. ATF is part of Justice."

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, called the moves “warranted” but said his committee “will continue its investigation to ensure that blame isn’t off-loaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department.’’

“There are still many questions to be answered about what happened in ‘Operation Fast and Furious’ and who else bears responsibility," he said.

The U.S. attorney in Minnesota, B. Todd Jones, will replace Melson as acting ATF director, the Justice Department said.

“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," Holder said in a statement.

According to the Post, the ATF has been without a permanent director since 2006, when Congress required that the position be confirmed by the Senate. President Barack Obama nominated ATF special agent Andrew Traver for the position in November, but Traver is opposed by the National Rifle Association and his nomination has stalled.