By RICHARD A. SERRANO - Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - In a confidential deposition with congressional investigators, the then-head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives blamed agents, field supervisors and even his top command for never advising him that for more than a year, his agency allowed illegal gun sales along the southwestern U.S. border. The deposition, which was taken in July and was recently obtained by the Washington bureau, shows that Kenneth E. Melson was irate. Even his chief intelligence officer at ATF headquarters was upset with the operation, dubbed Fast and Furious, but did little to shut it down, Melson complained. "He didn't come in and tell me, either," Melson said. "And he's on the same damn floor as I am." But B. Todd Jones, Melson's replacement as acting director of the agency, said in an interview that Melson allowed overzealous field agents and supervisors to go beyond approved tactics.
Pointing out that the ATF has had five acting directors in the last six years, Jones said the resulting weak management structure has given some field agents a license to operate independently of Washington. "There was a vacuum. Fast and Furious went off the rails, and there were plenty of opportunities to pivot so none of this would happen," Jones said. Under the program, devised to help agents follow weapons from gun stores to Mexican cartel leaders, about 2,000 firearms were lost. Two were found after the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry last December. Hundreds more were recovered after violent crimes in Mexico. "Anybody, including Mr. Melson, who waits for things to happen or waits for information to come to them, that is something I personally am not a believer in," Jones said. "I'm a believer in management by walking around. If you're not hearing it, you seek it out. And there are a lot of ways to do that other than sitting in your corner office waiting for memos to come in." Melson was transferred to a lower-level job at the Department of Justice on Aug. 30. Jones, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, was appointed by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. as the new acting director. At Holder's request, the Justice Department's inspector general began investigating Fast and Furious in February, a month after the controversial operation in the ATF's Phoenix field office came to light. Jones expects the inspector general's report early next year. He said he will immediately refer it to the ATF's Office of Professional Responsibility for recommendations on job terminations or suspensions. "We sure will" be making some quick personnel decisions, he said. Jones has visited about a fourth of the ATF's 25 field offices, and has brought in six new top managers. He said he is also working closely with Justice officials who oversee the ATF. "It's been tough on people, tough on morale. And yet I think we are pulling the car out of the ditch." In his deposition, Melson said that the lack of management oversight went beyond his own agency to the Justice Department. Once Fast and Furious broke into public view, Melson said, Justice officials strenuously objected when he wanted to disclose everything to Congress. "We were floating the idea and asking them to allow us to do that," he said. But he said he was told "it is a long-standing policy of the Department of Justice that we don't talk about ongoing cases." Justice officials said they were never told about the Fast and Furious tactics and cite ATF internal emails as evidence. Hours after Terry was killed south of Tucson, David J. Voth, the ATF group supervisor for Fast and Furious in Phoenix, sent an email to lead Agent Hope A. MacAllister. He titled the email, "no more rose colored glasses." "If you have not heard a Border Patrol agent was shoot and killed here in Arizona," he told her. "The trace came back to Fast and Furious...Ugh...! Call as soon as you can, things will most likely get ugly."