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July 2011


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Archive for July, 2011

Column: ATF’s Melson May Have a Second Wind; Should FBI Have Used Violent Gun Smuggler as Informant?

Allan Lengel

By Allan Lengel

With the storm surrounding ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious getting more intense by the day, I thought it was time to step back and make some observations.

One: Acting ATF Director Ken Melson, who seemed like a dead man walking earlier this monthafter word got out that he was going to be forced to resign —  may have a little life left in him.  There’s a good chance he’ll be sticking around at least a little while longer.

After all, how bad would it look for the Justice Department to give him the boot at a time he’s expressing concern that the Justice Department is trying to  hush him up and keep him from telling the truth about the faulty operation  that encouraged Arizona gun dealers to sell to straw purchasers — all with the hopes of tracing the guns to the Mexican cartels.

He won’t survive this in the long run, particularly after some report — perhaps the Office of Inspector General — recommends an across-the-board change at the top at ATF. But he may stir up more mud  and try to salvage his reputation.

In the mean time, his statements on the matter, which have been released by bomb-throwers, Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley, have made him look far better than the Justice Department. The Justice Department isn’t looking so good. And the Justice Department can’t paint Melson as some cowboy or  rogue ATF agent. He was one of them. He came from the Justice Department. Now Melson thinks Atty. Gen. Eric Holder’s Justice Department sucks — or at minimum, can’t be trusted.

And then there’s the FBI informant ATF said it knew nothing about. Look for that to become a bigger deal and possibly create a little public relations headache for the FBI.

If you haven’t been following that closely: ATF was looking at some guy, who had a reputation as a violent gun dealer for the Mexican Cartels — only to find out that the FBI was using this guy as an informant. So of course, ATF had to back off.

Shades of Whitey Bulger? Well, in some ways no. There’s certainly no indication of any crooked FBI agents involved.

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, the FBI needs to  draw the line with some informants  (like Bulger) when it appears their crimes out weigh the benefits of getting the information.

In this case, you do the math.  A violent gun smuggler for the the very very violent Mexican cartels. He should  have been behind bars, then coughed up information to get a better deal at sentencing. You shouldn’t let guys like that run their game and live the good  life.  Sure there’s arguments to made that it’s worth dealing with the devil to bring down multiple devils. But sometimes it just ain’t worth it — when death is part of the equation.

Then there’s the issue of doing the right thing. The FBI was dealing with a major gun runner. It should have given ATF a heads up that it was working the guy. It didn’t. Now, with this mess, who knows. The informant may end up dead as a result of this all coming to the surface.

In any event,  this whole mess can’t be good for anybody and it certainly can’t help the already strained the relationship beween the FBI and ATF.

And unfortunately, this whole Fast and Furious mess is only going to get messier.

Stay tuned.

FBI Says Pakistan Plotted to Influence U.S. Policy

New York Times

WASHINGTON — Pakistan’s military, including its powerful spy agency, has spent $4 million over two decades in a covert attempt to tilt American policy against India’s control of much of Kashmir — including funneling campaign donations to members of Congress and presidential candidates, the F.B.I. claimed in court papers unsealed Tuesday.

The allegations of a long-running plan to influence American elections and foreign policy come at a time of deep tensions between the United States and Pakistan — and in particular its spy agency — amid the fallout over the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden at a compound deep inside Pakistan on May 2.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation made the allegations in a 43-page affidavit filed in connection with the indictment of two United States citizens on charges that they failed to register with the Justice Department as agents of Pakistan, as required by law. One of the men, Zaheer Ahmad, is in Pakistan, but the other, Syed Fai, lives in Virginia and was arrested on Tuesday.

To read more click here.

Inspector Gen. Investigators in Phoenix for Fast and Furious Probe

By Allan Lengel

While Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley continue to attack the Justice Department in Washington over Operation Fast and Furious, investigators from the Office of Inspector General are in Phoenix looking into the matter.

According to one source, the OIG investigators are interviewing ATF agents and prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix.

The probe into the matter seems to be heating up as Grassley and Issa put more pressure on the Justice Department to cough up documents and information on the controversial operation.

Under the program, ATF encouraged gun dealers to sell to middlemen or straw purchasers, with the hopes of tracing the guns to the Mexican cartels. Some of the guns have shown up at crime scenes including at the scene in Arizona where Border Agent Brian Terry was killed.

There has been nothing that has surfaced publicly to suggest the guns were actually used in the killing of Terry.

There is also no proof that any of the guns from Operation Fast and Furious were used to kill ICE agent Jamie Zapata in Mexico.


Congressional Members Use ATF Director’s Words to Bash Justice Dept. in Fast and Furious Probe

Ken Melson/atf photo

By Allan Lengel

Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa continued to unleash their attack on the Justice Department in connection with Operation Fast and Furious — this time using the words of acting ATF Director Ken Melson.

In sum: It all sounds like a mess.

Grassley and Issa fired off a letter Monday to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. saying that Melson was disappointed with the Justice Department and that the agency prevented him from being forthright about the controversial program. Melson spoke freely to Congressional investigators over the July 4th weekend, providing plenty ammunition for the inquisitive Congressional members.

The letter to Holder quotes Melson as saying, after receiving an initial letter from Grassley “our first instinct and intuition was to directly march over to Senator Grassley’s office and brief him on what Fast and Furious was for purposes of explaining the concept and the role it played and how it got out there, and where ATF was going in it. And we expressed that desire to the (Deputy Attorney General)’s office.”

The letter to Holder then went on to say that “As you know, the Department did not permit Mr. Melson to brief Senator Grassley. Instead, the Department devised strategy to withhold information from the Senator.

Melson also told investigators what he thought when the Justice Department resisted turning over some info to Grassley. “I sat in (the office of Associate Deputy Attorney General with responsibility for ATF) one day when they were writing the letter to Senator Grassley about him being only a ranking member and not the chair of the committee. I sat there across the desk from (him), as I recall, and said, this is really just poking (Senator Grassley) in the eye. What’s the sense of doing this? Even if you say you can’t give it to him, he’s going to get it through the back door anyhow, so why are we aggravating the situation?”

Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, denied on Tuesday that the department has been uncooperative in the investigation into Fast and Furious.

“Any notion that the Department has failed to cooperate with the investigation is simply not based in fact, ” she said. “These allegations serve only to distract from the concerns raised by ATF agents that the Committee and the Department’s Inspector General are investigating and ignore the substantial efforts undertaken by the Department regarding this investigation, including providing various staff briefings, testimony from officials, interviews with employees and thousands of pages of documents, to the Committee.

“The Department, like the Committee, is interested in determining whether Operation Fast and Furious was appropriately handled and that is why the Attorney General, several months ago, asked the IG to investigate the concerns raised by ATF agents about this operation,” she said.

The letter said that Melson wanted to let Congress know that it was taking the problems with Fast and Furious seriously and that upper management had decided to replace the management in the Phoenix Division that was heading up the operation. Melson said the Justice Department resisted.

The Deputy Attorney General’s Office, Melson said, “wasn’t very happy with us, because they thought this was an admission that there were mistakes made. Well, there were mistakes made.”

The letter also talks about reports of Melson being immediately replaced by Andrew Traver, the head of the Chicago ATF office, who is the White House nominee for the permanent director spot.

The letter mentioned that an anonymous source leaked info to the Wall Street Journal that Traver might be on the job by July 5. Congressional investigators asked if Melson was surprised to see in the Journal that he would be asked for step down.

“Yes, I was surprised,” he said. Melson, according to letter, also testified that the Justice Department prevented him from communicating to his staff about Fast and Furious.

“Part of the problem, and one of the things that infuriated me was that I have not been allowed to communicate to the troops about anything. So, for example, earlier on, I wanted to do a broadcast that just talked about the case because everybody was wondering what’s this case about? What are you doing at headquarters?

“How come you were not issuing press releases and how come you were not ordering press conference ad pushing back and things like that? And I was told not do do that. Then after we wanted to do several things to talk to our people about what this case was about, what it wasn’t about, and you know, where were were going and the fact that we were cooperating as much as we could with the committee and with the Department, but we were restrained from doing that.

“And even after your hearings on the — was it the 16th or whatever that Wednesday was, we wanted to to the same thing , and they said, well, let us read it first. So we finally drafted something and sent it over to them. I don’t know whether we ever got it back, but it has restrained out ability to work with our people.”

The letter goes on to say that Melson felt “in his view, the Department was more concerned with protecting its political appointees than with obtaining and sharing the truth. he believed that a more forthcoming approach would have been preferable for all interested parties.

“My view is that the whole matter of the Department’s response in this case was a disaster,” Melson said. “That as a result, it came to fruition that the committee staff had to be more aggressive and assertive in attempting to get information from the Department, and as a result, there was more adverse publicity towards ATF than was warranted if we had cooperated from the very beginning. and a lot of what they did was damage control after a while. Their position on things changed weekly and it was hard for us to catch up on it, but it was very clear that they were running the show.”

Justice Dept. Filing Casts Doubt on Guilt of Anthrax Suspect Bruce Ivins

Anthrax Suspect Bruce Ivins

By Mike Wiser, PBS FRONTLINE, Greg Gordon, McClatchy Newspapers, and Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has called into question a key pillar of the FBI’s case against Bruce Ivins, the Army scientist accused of mailing the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and terrorized Congress a decade ago.

Shortly after Ivins committed suicide in 2008, federal investigators announced that they had identified him as the mass murderer who sent the letters to members of Congress and the media. The case was circumstantial, with federal officials arguing that the scientist had the means, motive and opportunity to make the deadly powder at a U.S. Army research facility at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md.

On July 15, however, Justice Department lawyers acknowledged in court papers that the sealed area in Ivins’ lab — the so-called hot suite — did not contain the equipment needed to turn liquid anthrax into the refined powder that floated through congressional buildings and post offices in the fall of 2001.

The government said it continues to believe that Ivins was “more likely than not” the killer. But the filing in a Florida court did not explain where or how Ivins could have made the powder, saying only that the lab “did not have the specialized equipment’’ in Ivins’ secure lab “that would be required to prepare the dried spore preparations that were used in the letters.”

To read more click here.

Congressional Members Want Communications of More than a Dozen FBI and DEA Agents

atf photo

By Allan Lengel

Two Congressional members probing ATF’s controversial “Operation Fast and Furious” gun program have fired off letters to the heads of the FBI and DEA demanding from more than a dozen agents all communications relating to the case.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) sent letters to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and DEA Director Michele Leonhart.

The letters come in response to statements acting ATF Director Ken Melson made to Congressional investigators over the July 4 weekend in which he said the FBI and DEA were aware of the program.  Issa and Grassley said there are allegations that the FBI had at least one paid informant who may have acted as a straw purchaser in Operation Fast and Furious.

The program encouraged gun dealers in Arizona to sell weapons to middlemen or straw purchasers — all with the hopes of tracing the guns to the Mexican cartels. Some of the guns have surfaced at crime scenes including in the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

In a press release,  Grassley and Issa said they sent a letter to the FBI’s Mueller “about the ‘veracity of claims’ regarding the possible involvement of paid FBI informants in Operation Fast and Furious and ‘specifically at least one individual who is allegedly an FBI informant’ and ‘might have been in communication with, and was perhaps even conspiring with, at least one suspect whom ATF was monitoring.’

The press release added: “The letter to DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart requested a briefing by DEA staff as well as ‘the number of informants or cooperating informants handled by other agencies identified in the course of any investigations related to Operation Fast and Furious.’”

The letter to the DEA’s  Leonhart  specifically asks for communications of DEA Agents: Elizabeth Kempshall, special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; Doug Coleman, acting Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix office; Chris Feistle, assistant special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; Albert Laurita, assistant special agent in charge in Tucson, David Hathaway, resident agent in charge in Nogales, Az. and Joe Muenchow, resident agent in charge in Yuma, Az.

The Congressional members also asked for communications of the following FBI agents:

Nathan Gray, former special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; Annette Bartlett, assistant special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; Stephen Cocco, acting special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; Steven Hooper, assistant special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; John Iannarelli, assistant special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; John Strong, assistant special agent in charge of the Phoenix office; David Cuthbertson, special agent in charge of the El Paso office; and the case agent from the Tucson office in charge of the murder investigation into Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

FBI Agent Says He Doubted N.O. Cops Cover Up Story in Danziger Bridge Shootings

By Allan Lengel

The ugly chapter in New Orleans history — the shootings at Danziger Bridge in 2005 — continued to play out in a federal court Monday, with an FBI agent testifying about why he doubted what police were saying. Two unarmed people were killed and four were injured in the Post-Katrina shooting.

FBI Agent William Bezak told a federal jury in New Orleans that he had doubts about police claims that they were being shot at by civilians because the cops never took cover, Reuters news service reported.

Reuters reported that the agent, who had investigated the shooting,  recalled watching news videos of the Sept. 4, 2005 shooting.

“They’re literally standing tall and shooting up the bridge,” Bezak recalled of the officers.

The trial for five officers charged with shooting unarmed civilians is in its fourth week.


It’s Raining SACs; FBI Announces 4 New Ones

By Allan Lengel

On Monday, it appeared to be raining new special agents in charge at the FBI.

The agency announced the names of four new SACs: Christopher M. Piehota for the Buffalo Division; James L. Turgal for the Phoenix Division; Stephen L. Morris for the Houston Division and David A. Ford for the Springfield, Ill. Division.

Christopher M. Piehota most recently served as the deputy director for operations at the Terrorist Screening Center. He started his career as an agent in 1995 at the Newark office.

James L. Turgal most recently served as special assistant to the deputy director. He entered the FBI in 1996 and was first assigned to Houston.

David A. Ford most recently served as chief of the Cyber Intelligence Section and was the senior executive responsible for organizing and leading the FBI’s analysis and reporting on cyber terrorism, cyber espionage, Internet fraud, intellectual property rights theft, and other high-technology crimes. He joined the FBI in 1992 in South Carolina.

Stephen L. Morris most recently served as deputy assistant director in the Criminal Justice Information Services Division. He joined the FBI in 1988 as  as an administrative file clerk in the Honolulu Division.  In 1991, he completed new agent training in Quantico and was assigned to the El Paso bureau.