The embargo on documents and testimony from the ATF on Project Gunwalker/Operation Fast and Furious appears to have ended. According to the Daily Beast last night, a deal brokered between Senators Pat Leahy and Charles Grassley will bring ATF chief Kenneth Melson, other witnesses, and a large set of documents to Congress as it probes the ATF and the Department of Justice’s gunrunning sting operation gone horribly awry (via Public Secrets):
The testimony—expected next month from Kenneth Melson, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—was brokered as part of a deal between Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and the committee’s top Republican, Iowa’s Charles Grassley. Grassley and his fellow Republicans were given full access to ATF documents, Melson, and other key witnesses; and in return, Grassley agreed to release three Obama administration nominees he had been blocking, according to correspondence obtained by NEWSWEEK and THE DAILY BEAST.
Grassley had been fighting to get full access for months. He finally got it with a letter Leahy wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting access for both his staff and Grassley’s investigators to the evidence and witnesses in the gun-sting investigation. In return, Grassley agreed to let proceed the nominations of Jim Cole to be deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco to be assistant attorney general for national security, and Virginia Seitz to be head of the Office of Legal Counsel, the letter shows.
That doesn’t sound like good news for the Obama administration. Melson had been considered a likely fall guy, but according to John Solomon’s report, Melson has no intention of falling on his sword — at least not by himself:
Congressional investigators in both chambers want to know whether Melson discussed or sought approval for the strategy from Holder or his top deputies, the White House, or other senior law-enforcement officers. They also want to know whether Melson’s agency has run into roadblocks or poor information sharing in its efforts to combat larger gun trafficking.
As head of the agency that conducted the controversial sting, Melson has faced calls for his resignation. But in private conversations with congressional investigators in recent days, Melson has indicated he does not believe he did anything wrong because he carried out his bosses’ wishes and is eager to testify to describe the full picture, according to sources familiar with those conversations.
Bob Owens handicaps the potential outcomes for Pajamas Media. He considers the option for Melson to take the fall himself to still be possible, but notes that Melson could easily have already done this. Why wait? The next step up from Melson is the DoJ’s Criminal Division head Lanny Breuer. Breuer personally authorized a wiretap for Gunwalker, so he is already involved. Breuer, though, is an old political hand that would resign in a heartbeat to shield others from responsibility. It’s when it gets above Breuer that the stakes get interesting:
3. Breuer isn’t the highest link in the chain: Melson implicates Attorney General Eric Holder.
Chairman Issa states that AG Holder “absolutely” knew about Gunwalker earlier than he testified that he did, and if Issa has the evidence to prove that the attorney general is part of a cover-up, then there is every reason to suspect Holder will be forced to resign, or will face impeachment.
This is a far more likely scenario than many think.
4. Collateral damage.
There is the distinct possibility that Lanny Breuer and Eric Holder are not the only administration officials that run the risk of going down as a result of their roles in Gunwalker and its cover-up. While ATF and their parent organization the Department of Justice were ultimately responsible for the operation, other executive branch departments were involved.
The Department of Homeland Security played a role in Gunwalker, and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano would possibly be kept abreast of Gunwalker since she was both the former governor of Arizona and the state’s attorney general from 1999-2002. Lesser-ranking figures within DHS and other agencies were certainly involved, but Napolitano is the cabinet-level official other than Eric Holder who would have most likely known about Gunwalker.
I doubt that Melson would have had direct contact with Napolitano on this kind of clandestine effort, though. That seems to be much less likely than Melson having something on Holder. If (a very big “if”) Melson can show that Holder lied to Congress about what he knew and when he knew it — the old Watergate question — then Holder will have no choice but to resign or face impeachment. In fact, it hardly seems worth the effort for Melson to hold out on a resignation just to get Breuer.
This should be a very interesting set of hearings and documents. Perhaps at the least, they can shed light on why the whistleblower in this case got fired shortly after exposing the botched operation.