The Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Global Narcotics Affairs might get a little more heated than usual on March 31, 2011. Among the panel members is Kenneth Melson, Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE).
The hearing will be the first opportunity for senators to question the Acting Director of the ATF about events surrounding Customs Agent Brian Terry's death and the Gunwalker Scandal. Gunwalker, also called "Fast and Furious," was a deviation from Project Gunrunner that only tracked guns being purchased for use in the drug war raging in Mexico. Gunwalker/Fast and Furious actually allowed the guns to "walk" south of the Mexican border without the knowledge or permission of the Mexican government.
Nearly a week after Sharyl Atkisson presented the first major network report of Project Gunwalker on CBS Evening News, all three major political parties in Mexico asked for a clarification of the events surrounding the project. On March 8th, the Associated Press reported that "Congressman Humberto Trevino estimated Tuesday that 150 shooting injuries or deaths have been linked to guns that were allowed to proceed into Mexico as part of a U.S. effort to build cases against traffickers."
On March 13th Univision, a Spanish language network, broadcast two interviews, one with John Dodson, the subject of Sharyl Atkisson's first report on the growing scandal. The other interview was with Rene Jaquez, the former ATF attaché to Mexico. Both men reported knowledge of the operation and Dodson claimed that it had been ongoing since at least the end of 2009. Yet, when asked about the scandal, President Obama could only say that he had not authorized it.
Earlier this week Barack Obama sat down with Univision's star anchor Jorge Ramos and was asked the direct question: "The Mexican Government complains that they were not informed about the 'Fast and Furious' operation (Gunwalker). Did you authorize this operation and was President Calderon properly informed about it?"
President Obama responded quickly and firmly stating that neither he nor Attorney General Eric Holder authorized the operation. This was Barack Obama's equivalent to "I'm not a crook" statement. The question is not whether the President authorized it; it is when he knew about it. Did the President of the United States know about Project Gunwalker when he slapped the back of President Calderon and told him that they were working to stop the flow of guns, when in fact the operation was engaged in just the opposite?
In the Univision interview Obama revealed more than he would have liked. At one moment he tried to claim that the American government has "too many moving parts" for him to keep up with things like Project Gunwalker. It was a thinly veiled attempt to divert the conversation, but it left Obama looking as if the injuries and deaths of at least 150 Mexican nationals didn't rate his attention. However, that fact is getting a lot of attention in Mexico where the PGR, or the Mexican Attorney General's office is seeking information on U.S. agents who might have committed crimes by facilitating the movement of arms into Mexico.
Alberto Morales of El Universal, a Mexican national newspaper closely following the developing scandal, has subsequently written an article based on the CBS report by Sharyl Attkisson that featured Darren Gil, former ATF attaché to Mexico. In the interview Gil revealed that he had on numerous occasions requested permission to inform the Mexican government about "Fast and Furious." This would seem to be in direct conflict with the impression left by President Obama only hours before that high-level officials had no knowledge of the operation.
In the interview, Darren Gil revealed that when he asked his supervisor about Fast and Furious he was told that "not only is the director (of the ATF) aware of it, but the Department of Justice is aware of it." Sharyl Attkisson asks: "They didn't want you to inform your Mexican counterparts?" Gil: "That's correct."
When the scandal first broke on CleanUpATF.org and was brought to light by the strident efforts of David Codrea of Examiner.com and Mike Vanderboegh of Sipsey Street Irregulars, there was a flurry of activity between Washington and the Phoenix office of the ATF. A serious effort to cover up the scandal took place, evidenced by a letter from Scot L. Thomasson, Chief of the ATF Public Affairs Division wherein Thomasson directs other public information officers to "proactively push positive stories this week, in an effort to preempt some negative reporting, or at minimum, lessen the coverage of such stories in the news cycle by replacing them with good stories about ATF."
Kenneth Melson as the Acting Director must have some of the answers that Eric Holder and boss Barack Obama refuse to address. Among the sitting committee members are Republican Marco Rubio of Florida as Ranking Member and Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico, either one of whom are in a position to ask some tough questions. While New Mexico has not been featured in the border violence, it is doubtless that some of the estimated 2,500 weapons allowed to "walk" into Mexico have impacted the state that shares a border with Mexico and is only miles from the cartel hotspot of Ciudad Juarez. Marco Rubio as a rising force in the Republican Party could seize this opportunity to strengthen his brand and expose the cynical nature of the Obama Administration.
Should either Tom Udall or Marco Rubio choose to take an active role in discovering the truth behind Project Gunwalker, they might ask a few important questions at the hearing. Since the president has disavowed the authorization of Fast and Furious for himself and Eric Holder who then authorized the project? With millions of taxpayer funds going into this project for the past two years, when was its existence revealed to the President and the Attorney General? Is it typical for the Director of the BATFE to engage in international activity without the knowledge of the Attorney General,the President of the United States or the Secretary of State? In a letter dated February 4, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich responded to a question put to him by Senator Charles Grassley by stating that straw purchases of weapons had never been "sanctioned" by the ATF, is that a true statement?
Update: Kenneth Melson backed out of the hearing. Perhaps the House Government Reform Committee will have better luck securing a subpoena, I have a feeling they are going to need it.