A U.S. government gun-trafficking investigation gone horribly wrong has resulted in the death of a U.S. Border Patrol officer, some 2,000 firearms in the hands of criminals, and the dismissal of a 24-year veteran law enforcement official. This is the story of Fast and Furious, and yesterday the latest chapter unfolded when two top officials associated with the operation were removed from their positions, while a third individual resigned.
The story begins in the fall of 2009, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) office in Phoenix, Arizona, began selling weapons to small-time gun buyers in the hopes of tracing them to major weapons traffickers along the southwestern border and into Mexico. Their efforts failed, the number of arms unaccounted for numbers around 1,500 as of late July, and about two-thirds of those guns ended up in Mexico, according to congressional testimony.
Tragically, the botched operation has had serious consequences. On the night of December 15, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was shot and killed during an effort to catch several bandits targeting illegal immigrants in Arizona near the border. When law enforcement rushed to the scene, they discovered two of the killers' assault rifles that were among those sold as part of Operation Fast and Furious. Additionally, 57 Fast and Furious weapons have been connected to at least an additional 11 violent crimes in the U.S.
In December 2010, ATF agent Vince Cefalu spoke out about the operation before the first reports on the story appeared in February. FoxNews.com reports that Cefalu said at the time, "Simply put, we knowingly let hundreds of guns and dozens of identified bad guys go across the border." Other agents later came forward, congressional hearings have been held, and President Barack Obama called the operation "a serious mistake." Cefalu, though, was forced to resign.
Yesterday, more Fast and Furious–related personnel changes came about when the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Kenneth Melson, the acting head of the ATF who presided over the operation, is being replaced and transferred to the Office of Legal Policy where he will serve as a senior advisor on forensic science. Heritage's Lachlan Markay reports that "Melson bucked his superiors at DOJ in July by revealing details about the operation to congressional investigators in a closed door meeting with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who have been investigating the operation in their respective roles."
Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, announced his resignation. The Hill reports that "Burke oversaw the legal aspects of the Fast and Furious operation, providing advice to agents involved." And The Arizona Republic reports that the lead prosecutor for Operation Fast and Furious cases in Burke's office was also reassigned Tuesday. Issa, who has led the congressional investigation into the case, said that even with yesterday's news, he will continue looking for answers:
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.
Meanwhile, the White House has said little about Fast and Furious. In June, President Obama said in a press conference: "My Attorney General has made clear that he wouldn’t have ordered gun running into Mexico. . . That would not be an appropriate step by the ATF." He then deflected further questions by citing an "ongoing investigation." And press secretary Jay Carney previously said that the President "did not know about or authorize this operation." But as Heritage's Rory Cooper wrote, "If that’s the case, how could neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder not know about an operation that everyone else at the Department of Justice seemed to be actively involved in, including the Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Attorney and head of the ATF?"
And if the White House has been silent, so has the media. It has been 57 days since the press has questioned the White House on the matter, when ABC's Jake Tapper peppered press secretary Jay Carney on the issue, asking why the public knows so little about the story, what the Administration is doing to get to the bottom of it, whether the acting head of ATF would go to Capitol Hill to testify on the subject, whether it is something the White House is worried about, and if the President upset about it. Carney's reply: He referred Tapper to the Department of Justice and remarked, "I think you could assume that the President takes this very seriously."
The President should take it seriously. And so should the American people. The ATF sold guns to criminals in Mexico, a life has been taken, and crimes have been committed with the weapons that were trafficked by the federal government. And yet, shockingly, questions remain under the Administration that called itself "the most transparent in history." It's time for more answers.