Weich answered that he didn’t know but said that Justice’s inspector general was now investigating.
After the hearing, the story received the dubious distinction of being lampooned by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show”: “The ATF plan to prevent American guns from being used in Mexican gun violence is to provide Mexican gangs with American guns. If this is the plan that they went with, what plan did we reject?”
The spotlight was now moving toward senior Justice officials, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. The attorney general told Issa that he did not learn about Fast and Furious until this spring. President Obama had said that Holder told him he would not have allowed guns to go into Mexico.
At the hearing, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, tried to turn the discussion toward gun control, noting that even the whistleblowers said they didn’t have the tools to stop firearms trafficking to Mexico.
Issa cut Cummings off, saying that was not their focus.
* * *
Fourth of July meeting
Through it all, ATF Director Melson sat in his office on New York Avenue in mounting frustration. He watched Congress pummel his agency and Issa call for his resignation while he said he was instructed by Justice to say nothing.
Melson had known there was a massive case being run out of Phoenix, but he later said he wasn’t aware of the operational details or the agents’ discontent.
After the outcry, Melson plunged into the case file, reading it at his kitchen table in Northern Virginia and on an airplane flight. It tied his stomach in knots, he said, and in mid-flight he composed an
e-mail telling Justice officials that their public stance was inconsistent with the documents.
Shortly after Issa’s hearing, Melson, a career prosecutor for more than 30 years, read in the newspaper that he might be fired.
On Friday, July 1, 2011, Grassley’s chief investigator sent Melson an e-mail, alerting him to concerns of retaliation against the Group 7 agents. He gave Melson his cellphone number and told him to call anytime.
By Sunday, Melson told the investigator he was ready to testify.
The next day, July 4, an extraordinary meeting took place: The embattled head of a federal agency went in secret to Capitol Hill to talk to the political enemies of his bosses in the Obama administration.
From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as crowds gathered downtown for the fireworks, Melson testified behind closed doors to about 10 congressional staffers sitting around a long witness table in the Rayburn Building. So intent were Melson and Richard Cullen, the private lawyer he retained, that they did not eat or drink for six hours.
“I would have given $5 for a pretzel,” said Cullen, Melson’s longtime friend and a former U.S. attorney.
Melson said mistakes had been made by the ATF. He said guns should have been interdicted in certain instances. He was frustrated that Justice had not let him speak to Congress months earlier. And he said Justice officials seemed to be more concerned about protecting the political appointees at the top of the department.
After Melson’s testimony, Issa and Grassley wrote a five-page letter embracing the ATF director and warning Holder not to fire or retaliate against him. Grassley and Issa also demanded the e-mails, internal memos and handwritten notes of 12 Justice officials who they said were aware of Fast and Furious.
“I do have serious concerns that the attorney general should have known a lot more than he says he knew,” said Issa, who is holding another Fast and Furious hearing Tuesday. “In some ways, I’m more disappointed that he’s saying he didn’t know than if he says he was getting briefings and he didn’t understand.”
Some ATF officials still insist that Fast and Furious is a success, saying the case will soon lead to the indictment of as many as two dozen high-level traffickers. They fear the controversy could rob the agency of the will to pursue the biggest gun-trafficking cases.
“I am concerned that the lasting effect of this premature and stilted inquiry will be that the citizens of this country ultimately will be less safe as ATF agents will be less inclined to work the hard cases necessary to cut off the head of the snake,” said Paul Pelletier, a former Justice official and the attorney for Newell. “The shame of it is that the careers of these terrific public servants have been unfairly tarnished at the expense of public theater.”
Altogether, the straw purchasers bought 2,020 firearms during Fast and Furious, according to law enforcement officials. Of those guns, 227 were recovered in Mexico; 363 have been recovered in the United States.
An additional 1,430 remain on the streets.