With the resignation this week of Dennis K. Burke, the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney in Phoenix, we have the first high-level casualty in the burgeoning scandal known as Operation Fast and Furious.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley is also being transferred from the criminal division to the civil division, although the Department of Justice (DOJ) claims that it was at Hurley’s own request. They join other key individuals—such as Kenneth E. Melson, who has been relieved as the Acting Director of the ATF and moved to the DOJ’s Office of Legal Policy as a “forensics” expert—involved in what Representative Darrel Issa (R–CA) very succinctly called a “felony stupid” law enforcement operation.
Testimony before Issa’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as well as e-mails that Issa was able to obtain show that the prosecutors in Burke’s office were involved in this reckless operation. It resulted in more than 2,000 weapons being handed to Mexican criminals and members of drug cartels who have brutally and viciously killed a shocking number of people.
The weapons included (unbelievably) dozens of .50 caliber sniper rifles—“approximately the number of sniper rifles a Marine infantry regiment takes into battle,” according to Carlos Canino, the Acting Attaché to Mexico for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who testified at Issa’s hearing on July 26.
This out-of-control operation was finally cancelled after two weapons sold to straw buyers with the approval of the ATF were found at the murder scene of border agent Brian Terry. But in recent weeks, it was revealed that even before Terry was killed, weapons from the ATF sting had been linked to eleven more violent crimes at six other crime scenes. Some of these weapons turned up as early as January 2010, “just after the program began,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Yet the ATF continued the operation until Terry’s death. That takes this operation from “felony stupid” to criminally reckless.
According to the Arizona Republic, Burke said he was unaware that agents were not interdicting the purchases. But Burke admitted that “it should not have been done the way it was done” and he took “responsibility for that.” However, Attorney General Eric Holder made no mention whatsoever of Operation Fast and Furious in his statement praising Burke, despite the fact that there is no other evident reason for Burke to be resigning from his position at this time other than his involvement in this wayward operation.
Burke claimed he was not “falling on a sword or trying to cover for anyone else,” but his resignation and the transfers of Hurley, Melson, and two other ATF supervisors involved in the program give the appearance of sacrificial lambs being offered up by the Administration to try to tamp down this scandal and direct attention away from Holder and his deputies. Former Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini told the Arizona Republic that it is “just typical Washington cronyism” and “it would be absolutely outrageous for ‘Justice Main’ to take it out on [Burke] and make him the fall guy.”
To date, Holder and his top deputy, James Cole, have refused to provide the information and documentation demanded by Issa and Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) about who approved this operation, although Holder has claimed that he did not know about it. The idea that neither the ATF (a division of DOJ) nor the U.S. Attorney in Arizona would seek the approval of Holder or his deputies for an operation crossing an international border that could potentially affect our foreign relations with another country is highly implausible to those familiar with internal DOJ procedures and policies.
This is particularly true given the tremendous attention that President Obama and other top Administration officials (like Hilary Clinton) gave to the supposed problem of U.S. arms being smuggled into Mexico—including a joint press conference by President Obama with President Filipe Calderon in Mexico City in April 2009. That may explain why the Administration is now trying to stanch the bleeding being caused by the public revelations about Operation Fast and Furious with these resignations and transfers.
One other important consideration should be kept in mind: A great deal was made of the termination of a number of U.S. Attorneys during the Bush Administration. The claim was that the attorneys—political appointees who served at the pleasure of the President—were somehow unlawfully fired because they had not made the prosecution of voter fraud cases a priority. This was treated as a huge scandal by the mainstream media and certain Members of Congress and even resulted in an investigation by the DOJ’s Inspector General. Of course, in that faux scandal, no one was killed and no government agency helped supply known, violent criminal organizations with hundreds of dangerous weapons. Quite a contrast.
Congress should continue to try to get to the bottom of this law enforcement fiasco. Representative Paul Gosar (R–AZ) appropriately termed Burke’s resignation only one of the “small steps on the long road to accountability for the Department of Justice.” He added that the American people must be “informed about who authorized this program, who allowed it to continue despite grave misgivings on the part of dedicated ATF agents, and who is responsible for the lack of transparency from DOJ thus far.”