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Under Scrutiny For 'Fast And Furious,' ATF Names New Leader

Two Justice Department officials who have been closely linked to a failed gun-trafficking operation known as "Fast and Furious" along the Southwest border announced their resignations Tuesday, as Republicans in Congress promised to continue their aggressive oversight.

Kenneth E. Melson, the acting leader of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, left that post for an advisory job at the Justice Department. And Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke said he would resign. Those two officials had oversight responsibility for Fast and Furious, and they've been the target of ire for months from House Government Oversight and Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA).

The operation was designed to build big criminal cases against violent Mexican drug cartels and the people who provided them with Ak 47s and other high powered weapons. But instead, ATF agents in some cases lost track of the weapons under surveillance and they later turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the Southwest border, including the December 2010 death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

In a statement, Issa vowed to continue the scrutiny despite the personnel shakeup.

"While the reckless disregard for safety that took place in Operation Fast and Furious certainly merits changes within the Department of Justice, the...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," Issa said.

Officials handpicked Minnesota's top federal prosecutor, B. Todd Jones, to serve as the bureau's acting director.

Jones is a former military judge advocate with broad experience in sensitive cases. Jones will serve as acting director of the ATF, and he won't give up his Senate confirmed job as the U.S. attorney in Minnesota. The ATF position requires Senate confirmation, too, but no nominee has gotten a successful vote in years because of fights in Congress about gun policy. Kenneth E. Melson, who had been leading the ATF on an interim basis since 2009, has been named a senior advisor on forensic science issues in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy.

Attorney General Eric Holder said he has "great confidence that (Jones) will be a strong and steady influence guiding ATF." Holder also thanked Melson for his service and said he would be a "valuable contributor" on forensic issues. Melson is a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) signaled in a written statement that a change at the top of ATF won't make the climate any easier. "Instead of reassigning those responsible for Fast and Furious within the Department of Justice, Attorney General Holder should ask for their resignations and come clean on all alleged gun walking operations...," Cornyn said.

Update at 2:22 p.m. ET. Dennis Burke's Resignation Letter

In his resignation e-mail sent to colleagues and obtained by NPR, Dennis Burke did not specifically mention "Fast and Furious."

"My long tenure in public service has been intensely gratifying," he wrote. "It has also been intensely demanding. For me, it is the right time to move on to pursue other aspects of my career and my life and allow the office to move ahead."

In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder praised Burke and his office's "quick response" in the investigation of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

"I am grateful to Dennis for his dedication and service to the Department of Justice over these many years and commend his decision to place the interests of the U.S. Attorney's office above all else," Holder said in a statement.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.