Acting ATF director dismisses speculation he’s quitting

Kenneth Melson, acting director of the troubled Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, is paying little heed to news reports speculating that he may step down in the wake of a House oversight panel's investigation suggesting he had advance knowledge of an ATF gun smuggling operation that went awry.

"Acting Director Kenneth Melson continues to be focused on leading ATF in its efforts to reduce violent crime and to stem the flow of firearms to criminals and criminal organizations," Scot Thomasson, the bureau's chief of public affairs, told Government Executive on Wednesday. "We are not going to comment on any speculations."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have been pressing ATF and the Justice Department for more details on a Phoenix-based 2010 undercover operation, code named Fast and Furious, in which weapons supplied by the bureau were used by Mexican criminals in December 2010 to murder ATF special agent Brian Terry.

Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, who testified at a June 15 hearing held by Issa, declined, despite a subpoena, to answer questions about who was responsible for authorizing the operation, citing an ongoing internal investigation and one by Justice's inspector general.

Gun rights groups that are traditionally skeptical of ATF, such as the National Rifle Association, are closely following the hearing -- and the bureau's performance in general.

Reports this week in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Main Justice suggested that Melson's days may be numbered and that President Obama's nominee to succeed him, Andrew Traver, was meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder about assuming the job on an acting basis. Justice declined Government Executive's request to confirm or deny the reports.

ATF, whose roots go back more than two centuries as part of the Treasury Department, moved to Justice during the 2003 reorganization that created the Homeland Security Department. In 2006, Congress subjected the director's position to Senate confirmation, and since then, the bureau has been led by acting directors, none of whom has been confirmed.

Obama in November 2010 named Traver, a Chicago-based ATF special agent, as his choice for director, but the Senate has not acted on the nomination. A Senate Judiciary Committee aide said, "the committee is still reviewing background information" on the Traver nomination while it focuses on the pressing legislation that will extend the term of the FBI director.

Traver, according to a White House bio, since 2004 has overseen all ATF investigations of the illicit use and trafficking of firearms and explosives and the commission of arson in Illinois. From 2001 to 2004, he served as an assistant special agent in charge for the San Francisco field division of ATF. He has also worked in New Orleans, ATF headquarters in Washington and its field division in Philadelphia.

The fact that no one has been confirmed as ATF director is worrisome to Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "You can't run an important agency or any agency with just an acting head," he said. "It makes it hard to launch special projects and crime-fighting initiatives and get support from agents to carry them out. I'm a former mayor, and if we'd had an acting police chief, things would have spiraled out of control."

Helmke "points the finger at Congress, because they made it a confirmable position, so either confirm someone or restructure the agency," he said. "The issues in Fast and Furious need to be addressed to find out who's responsible, but with an acting head, no one's responsible."

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