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Thursday
Jul072011

ATF Chief Secretly Tells Congress about Controversial Gun Program

John Foxx/Stockbyte/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) voluntarily appeared before two congressional oversight committees and revealed that senior Justice Department officials tried to limit his communications with Congress about an investigation into a controversial ATF program known as "Fast and Furious," according to a letter from the heads of two oversight committees.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have been investigating a program where ATF agents recorded and tracked straw purchases of weapons and allowed the guns to "walk" across the U.S. border into Mexico in an effort to locate major weapons traffickers.

Rather than appear with lawyers from the Justice Department and the ATF, Acting Director Ken Melson hired his own private attorney and secretly appeared before congressional investigators on July 4.  According to sources close to the investigation, Melson had previously wanted to testify before the oversight committees but Justice Department officials sought to delay his testimony.

Melson's testimony came weeks after three current ATF agents who were involved with the program testified before Congress about the botched operation and how the ATF failed to stop guns from going to Mexico.

The operation took a tragic turn in December 2010 when two weapons found at the scene where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered were linked to the ATF program.  According to reports by the ABC News affiliate in Phoenix, other guns from the program have now been linked to additional crimes.

ATF officials say they were trying to build cases that would allow them to target senior drug cartel leaders and key weapons traffickers, not low-level gun runners.

According to a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Grassley, Melson expressed dismay over how the operation was run and that "he was sick to his stomach" when he reviewed internal documents.  The letter also notes that Melson's testimony corroborated information that the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI may have had a role in the operation.

The letter sent to Attorney General Holder notes of Melson's testimony: "He was candid in admitting mistakes that his agency made and described various ways he says that he tried to remedy the problems.  According to Mr. Melson, it was not until after the public controversy that he personally reviewed hundreds of documents relating to the case, including wiretap applications and Reports of Investigation (ROIs).  By his account, he was sick to his stomach when he obtained those documents and learned the full story."

Melson testified that he and top management at ATF moved to reassign supervisors working on Fast and Furious and that officials at the DOJ allegedly tried to prevent ATF from notifying the oversight committees about the full nature of the management moves.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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