Obama & Holder Push AZ USAtty Burke Out Over ATF GunRunner Cock-Up

Coming across the wire this morning was this stunning announcement by the Department of Justice:

Statement of Attorney General Eric Holder on the Resignation of U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis Burke 08/30/2011 01:01 PM EDT

“United States Attorney Dennis Burke has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s office, first as a line prosecutor over a decade ago and more recently as United States Attorney,” said Attorney General Holder.

Say what? Maybe I am not as plugged in as i used to be, but holy moly this came out of the blue. What is behind the sudden and “immediate” resignation of Dennis Burke, an extremely decent man who has also been a great manager of the Arizona US Attorney’s Office through some of the most perilous times imaginable? The USA who has piloted the office in dealing with such high grade problems such as those stemming from SB1070, to traditional immigration issues, to the Giffords/Loughner shooting tragedy, the corruption and malfeasance of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to voting rights and redistricting controversies brought on by the ever crazy Arizona Legislature, has now resigned in the blink of an eye? Really?

Why?

The GunWalker mess. Also known as “Project GunRunner” and “Operation Fast and Furious” (yes, the idiots at ATF actually did call it that). From the Arizona Republic:

Burke’s resignation, effective immediately, is one of several personnel moves made in the wake of a federal gun-trafficking investigation that put hundreds of rifles and handguns from Arizona into the hands of criminals in Mexico. Burke’s office provided legal guidance to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the flawed initiative called Operation Fast and Furious.

The news comes on the same day as a new acting director was named to oversee the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives following congressional hearings into Fast and Furious, an operation that was aimed at major gun-trafficking networks in the Southwest.

Irrespective of the name attached to the program – I have always known it as the GunWalker operation, so i will stick with that – is has been a first rate clusterfuck from the outset. And, unlike so many things bollixing up the government, it cannot be traced back to the Bush/Cheney Administration; this beauty was the product of the Obama and Holder Department of Justice. In fact, the entire effort was, believe it or not, a byproduct of the vaunted Obama Stimulus Package, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

What this ill fated venture accomplished instead was to stimulate deadly gun possession and crimes of violence in Mexico. Again, from the Arizona Republic:

Questions about the Fast and Furious program began to emerge in the spring as a member of Congress began pressing ATF officials for answers about an operation that was designed to track small-time gun buyers until the guns reached the hands of major weapons traffickers along the southwestern border.

Instead, ATF agents ended up arresting low-level suspects and nearly 2,000 of the weapons were unaccounted for, with nearly two-thirds of those guns likely in Mexico, according to testimony federal firearms investigators gave to a House committee in June.

Investigators also confirmed that two of the weapons connected to the ATF operations were found at the scene of a December gunbattle near Rio Rico, Ariz., that left Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry dead.

Terry’s slaying effectively ended the operation.

Dozens of so-called straw buyers have been arrested, and more than 10,000 guns confiscated. However, the ATF came in for criticism from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General last year because Project Gun Runner was catching only the straw buyers — small fish in the smuggling business.

At a news conference in February, the ATF in Phoenix announced that 34 suspects had been indicted and that U.S. agents had seized 375 weapons as part of Operation Fast and Furious. None of those arrested was a significant cartel figure.

In short, it is, and has been, a cock-up of epic proportions. Who has paid the accountability price for this operational disaster? Well, two weeks ago, on August 16, the Los Angeles Times had this to report:

The ATF has promoted three key supervisors of a controversial sting operation that allowed firearms to be illegally trafficked across the U.S. border into Mexico.

All three have been heavily criticized for pushing the program forward even as it became apparent that it was out of control. At least 2,000 guns were lost and many turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and two at the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona.

The three supervisors have been given new management positions at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. They are William G. McMahon, who was the ATF’s deputy director of operations in the West, where the illegal trafficking program was focused, and William D. Newell and David Voth, both field supervisors who oversaw the program out of the agency’s Phoenix office.

Now, to be fair, the ATF complained about the LAT report, and the paper has issued a correction as follows: “The ATF said in a statement Aug. 17 that the three supervisors were “laterally transferred” from operational duties into administrative roles, and were not promoted.”

So McMahon, Newell and Voth were “laterally transferred” instead of being promoted. well, that’s convincing. The three men most responsible for the operational program still have cushy federal jobs at their regular status and pay grade, and Dennis Burke and the acting head of ATF are going to take the fall for it all. How nice.

Now, to be fair, as the sitting US Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke would have had to provide some legal guidance for the project and, perhaps, sign off on related warrant applications; but that is a far cry from being the one who designed the program and ran it operationally which, by all appearances, was done straight out of ATF and DOJ Main. Burke appears to be a convenient fall guy for an Obama Administration too craven to stand up for its own mistakes in DC. Former high level prosecutor and US Senator Dennis Deconcini had this to say:

If his resignation is tied to Fast and Furious, it’s ridiculous. It would be absolutely outrageous for ‘Justice Main’ to take it out on Dennis and make him the fall guy,” DeConcini said. “It’s just typical Washington cronyism. It just shows you how incompetent government can be to save themselves. It appears they screwed up, based on congressional hearings.

Without downplaying that the Arizona US Attorney’s Office would have had some involvement in the Gunwalker fiasco, it is extremely hard to see how Deconcini is off the mark with his assessment.

Why is the Obama Administration selling out a man like Dennis Burke? Because the Gunwalker fiasco is really that big of a total cock-up, they own every ounce of it, and would rather paint a scapegoat than own up to it. The mess has not gotten more play in the news and political discourse because the Obama Administration and Holder Department of Justice have done everything within their power to tamp down any investigation and/or discussion of the case because it really is that ugly.

Shamefully, the only sources of dedicated inquiry to date have come from Darrell Issa at House Oversight and Chuck Grassley at Senate Judiciary.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has pressed the ATF for two months to disclose details of Project Gun Runner and to justify a policy that allowed weapons into a nation where there were more than 36,000 drug-related murders in four years.

Last month, William McMahon, the head of ATF’s Western region, testified that the agency had good intentions when it launched Operation Fast and Furious in 2009. But looking back, there are things ATF would have done differently, he said.

Appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, McMahon said he was committed to dismantling criminal networks on both sides of the border and that “in our zeal to do so, and in the heat of battle, mistakes were made. And for that I apologize.”

Say what you will, Darrell Issa and Chuck Grassley are right to be asking questions on the GunWalker affair, and others, including our fine Democrats, should be too. The Obama Administration should quit obfuscating, and trying to divert attention by sacrificing scapegoats, and make a full accounting for a failed program. Dennis Burke is owed that.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
38 replies
  1. jo6pac says:

    I’m not too sure what the problem is, all they were trying to do is have an enemy that closer to Amerika. This would lower the cost of a war and at the same time become the new cheer of keeping out those dangerous brown people. Yes, the ones trying to escape the violence provide by the USA.

    It isn’t the first time we have armed the enemy and it won’t be the last. 0 groups are fast learners in the art sleaze.

  2. MadDog says:

    As a side issue, per the DOJ’s Press Release:

    “The Department of Justice today announced the appointments of U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota B. Todd Jones to serve as Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)…

    …Jones will continue to serve in the capacity of U.S. Attorney when he assumes the role of ATF acting director on Aug. 31, 2011…

    With Jones keeping his U.S. Attorney hat, I’m guessing there’s no real job security in that acting ATF director job.

    I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

  3. Kelly Canfield says:

    I’ve known Dennis Burke since we were both teenagers in high school, and he was always a fine person. Always.

    You should have seen the care in his eyes when he and another friend of mine from that era were doing our community service (a requirement to graduate prep school – not a punishment as meted out today, but that’s another story) at a place near South Mountain called “La Hacienda De Los Angeles.”

    It was a home for not only orphaned, but physically handicapped kids with a wide range of abilities.

    Dennis and my friend Luis Navzo helping a CNA bathe a baby with severe deformities is an image in my mind I will never forget.

    He’s always been a good guy.

  4. MadDog says:

    I don’t know anything about United States Attorney Dennis Burke, so I’m unable, and unwilling, to accuse him, nor for that matter, can I defend him.

    I do not know the depth of his and his office’s involvement (or lack of it for that matter) in the ATF GunRunner clusterfuck, but it would seem logical that other Federal organizations in his jurisdiction like the DEA, ATF, FBI, etc. would typically have to at least brief the US Attorney at the outset of undertaking a major operation if not get the US Attorney to sign-off on the operation.

    That said, the removal of United States Attorney Dennis Burke by Attorney General Eric Holder sounds like “we can’t easily fire Civil Servants, but we sure can make an example with Presidential appointees”.

    Was Dennis Burke collateral damage in the ATF GunRunner clusterfuck? Or was he getting his due for a moment’s stupidity? I don’t know.

    Kelly and bmaz have both attested to Dennis Burke’s general good character, but we all know that even good people can at at times do really stupid stuff.

    Will Congress really get to the bottom of this scandal, and see that the true malefactors are appropriately punished? I have my doubts, but hope springs eternal.

  5. rosalind says:

    OT: but yowza, Gretchen Morgenson up with a mortgage article: “The attorney general of Nevada is accusing Bank of America of repeatedly violating a broad loan modification agreement it struck with state officials in October 2008 and is seeking to rip up the deal.”

    about every dirty practice people have been screaming about gets exposed. one new one is despicable:

    “One worker said in a deposition cited in the complaint that employees were punished if they spent more than seven minutes or 10 minutes with a customer. Even though these limits allowed almost no time for assistance, Bank of America employees who did not curtail their conversations with troubled borrowers were reprimanded or fired, this employee said.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/31/business/bank-of-america-accused-of-breaching-mortgage-accord.html

  6. MadDog says:

    An interesting tidbit on Dennis Burke via Main Justice (which originally came from Faux News via “anonymous” sources, so caveat emptor!):

    “…Burke was interviewed by congressional investigators last week and, according to anonymous sources cited by Fox News, “got physically sick during questioning and could not finish his session…””

  7. bmaz says:

    @MadDog: Dennis would have had to sign off on some elements of the program and any warrant applications made within Arizona. Other than that, from everything I know, including what I could find today, Burke had nothing, or damn little at most, to do with the design and parameters of the program in chief.

  8. MadDog says:

    @bmaz: From Issa’s statement from earlier today:

    “…I also remain very concerned by Acting Director Melson’s statement that the Department of Justice is managing its response in a manner intended to protect its political appointees…”

    It sure sounds like there’s more being hidden at DOJ Headquarters than is surfacing publicly.

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: I guess the ATF will now be run out of Minnesota – via the Houston Chronicle:

    “…The Justice Department appointed B. Todd Jones, currently U.S. attorney in Minnesota, to replace Melson as acting ATF director.

    Jones will stay in his current role while serving as ATF head and will continue living in Minnesota, said Tracy Schmaler, a department spokeswoman…”

  10. bmaz says:

    @MadDog:

    Obama will NOT fight to confirm anybody, for anything, other than SCOTUS (I sear the next one there if he gets reelected is Cass Sunstein). By doing this crap ass shuck and jive, Obama does not have to mess with actual confirmation to an extremely contentious post. He will undoubtedly be completely fucking lame on getting AZ a new USA too.

  11. MadDog says:

    @bmaz: I do agree with you about O’s unwillingness in general to fight for any confirmation.

    In the case of an ATF Director confirmation, I was watching the CBS Evening News earlier when they brought up this ATF GunRunner clusterfuck story (it was the 2nd story up).

    Scott Pelley pointedly discussed with Sharyl Attkisson, who broke the ATF GunRunner clusterfuck story for CBS, that the ATF has not had a permanent Director confirmed since Bradley A. Buckles took the position back in 1999 (and left in 2004).

    The Pelley/Attkisson discussion noted the NRA and its Repug supporters would block any permanent nominee by a Democratic president, and that the Democrats for some unstated reason would do the same for a ATF nominee from a Repug president.

  12. MadDog says:

    As I expect we’ll continue to have more juicy tidbits dribbled out on this ATF GunRunner clusterfuck story, let’s see what one of the Repug broadsheets, the Wall Street Journal, has to say:

    “…Kenneth Melson, acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was reassigned to a new post in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, the department said Tuesday. Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke resigned.

    The two men were the top officials with direct responsibility for overseeing an ATF countertrafficking operation called Fast and Furious, which used tactics that allowed suspected smugglers to buy about 2,000 firearms…

    [snip]

    …The lawmakers and congressional investigators have raised questions in particular about Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general who heads the criminal division. His office approved wiretaps used in the ATF operation.

    The Justice Department has said that Mr. Breuer wasn’t aware of tactics used in the investigation. The department says lawyers in Mr. Breuer’s office review many wiretap applications and focus on constitutional issues, not the details of investigations…”

    (My Bold)

    I had wondered if Lanny Breuer was one of those being “protected”. I still wonder despite the oh-so-carefully-worded DOJ non-denial denials of his involvement.

  13. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Peter Yost of the AP is also reporting that Burke was “deeply involved” in the ATF GunRunner clusterfuck:

    “…Also leaving was Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney in Arizona, whose office was deeply involved in Operation Fast and Furious. Burke will be replaced on an acting basis by his first assistant, Ann Scheel…”

    Given the character testimonials from both Kelly Canfield and bmaz, I am still taking the MSM protrayals of Dennis Burke with a grain of skeptical salt and recommend others do as well.

    Character assassination is a time-honored MSM tradition!

  14. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Charlie Savage at the NYT reports:

    “…Democrats have been largely muted in response to the investigation. Mr. Holder also asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to examine the operation. And Democratic lawmakers have joined in criticizing its tactics, while objecting only to Republicans’ efforts to blame senior Obama administration officials for them.

    Such accusations have been repeatedly contradicted by testimony from Justice Department and A.T.F. supervisors — including Mr. Melson and Mr. Burke — that there was no policy directive from Washington or the administration to adopt such an investigative strategy. The two men have also said that they had not known the details of the operation’s tactics, let alone briefed their own superiors about them…”

  15. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And also this from Charlie Savage’s piece:

    “…Mr. Burke did not return calls on Tuesday. But in newly released excerpts of his private testimony to Congressional investigators this month, he took responsibility for the operation even as he said he had not known about its tactics.

    “I get to stand up when we have a great case to announce and take all the credit for it regardless of how much work I did on it,” he said. “So when our office makes mistakes, I need to take responsibility, and this is a case, as reflected by the work of this investigation, it should not have been done the way it was done, and I want to take responsibility for that, and I’m not falling on a sword or trying to cover for anyone else.”

  16. rdf67 says:

    Same Dennis Burke and Emory Hurley who authorized Felons to purchase, on multiple occasions, in violation of 18 USC 922d, 360 weps that went to Mexico? Gee – to think they would be forced to resign for that little illegal stuff. You just never know, do ya? But they are such nice guys. Filed a brief against the Terry family to oppose their victim rights status because the govt had nothing to do with his death? No wonder Burke got sick during questioning. He should be in jail.

  17. bmaz says:

    @MadDog:

    Here is the thing, I have seen one investigative report, and been told of another. When I get back from voting, I can pass on the one, and I guarantee you the words “Dennis Burke Arizona US Attorney” are not in it whatsoever. I am told, but cannot personally confirm, he plays little, if any, role in the other. He is dying for somebody else’s sins.

  18. bmaz says:

    @rdf67:

    Uh yeah. Hey there, that is pretty much a load of crap. The program was run by the ATF, not Burke. As to victims rights status, any orders on that would have come from DOJ Main, not Burke’s discretion. Nice rant though.

  19. MadDog says:

    @bmaz: Ta for the info!

    I sure hope some enterprising journo gets to the bottom of why Holder pushed Burke under the bus.

    Again, perhaps Burke did or said something stupid, and who among us has not, but just how does Burke’s dismissal/resignation relate at all to the ATF GunRunner clusterfuck?

    There’s got to be more to what is going on than has been made publicly available, and I’m not referring here to Burke, but to the clueless and obviously incompetent ATF folks who dreamed up this operation and then proceeded to mismanage it into clusterfuck world record.

    • bmaz says:

      Here is the Investigator General’s report on Project Gunrunner filed in November of 2010. It was all over but the coverup and obfuscating at that point. [Actually, strike that, some parts went at least into March even thought the meat of the program had been long underway].

      http://www.justice.gov/oig/reports/ATF/e1101.pdf

      In a table near the end, you will see that the “US Attorney” was interviewed as a “Non-ATF” source. You will NOT find Burkes name, his job position descriptor or anything remotely similar in the body of the report. This pile of shit was an ATF show, cleared by people in the Administration and protected because it emanated largely, at least the bad part of it, out of the stimulus program; that is why they are so touchy about it.

      • bmaz says:

        Okay, I have been searching as deeply as I can to find substantive involvement by Burke. Here is the sum of everything I have found so far. It is an internal ATF file memo, the kind where they cover their ass with a little paper (and whoo boy is this common for law enforcement agencies). the key language, while completely CYA does read:

        This investigation was briefed to United States Attorney Dennis Burke, who concurs with the assessment of his line prosecutors and fully supports the continuation of this investigation. Further, Phoenix Special [ATF] Agent Charlie Newell has repeatedly met wit USA Burke regarding the ongoing status of this investigation and both are in full agreement with the current investigative strategy.

        The same paragraph indicates very clearly that AUSA Emory Hurley was the one in the office integrally involved, to the extent the office was. This is all is Paragraph 8.

        Now, maybe Dennis really is at the core of this crap and deserved to be fired; but this penny ante CYA stuff in a single ATF memo to the file does not prove that for squat. It is amazing that even the head ATF guys get to laterally transfer to cushy new jobs at DOJ, and they throw Dennis out on his bum. That ain’t right.

  20. orionATL says:

    what is missing from this interesting report is the purposes of “gunrunner”.

    why was the program/sting set up ?

    what was selling guns below the border supposed to accomplish?

    was the trigger (for dismissal of ausa) the border patrol agent’s death?

    (that seems unlikely since the obama boys don’t give a rat’s ass for individual pain or injustice)

    and darryl issa? the right wing’s most distinguished car thief –

    could it be that obama-banco are sacrifising the az ausa to appease said car thief issa?

    that’s just the sort of perverted political act the obama
    admin is fond of –

    trash chicago mayoral politicians masquerading as national leaders, and petty, trash chicago mayoral politics all the way,

    understanding that is the key to understanding how short-sighted, petty, vindictive, and incompetent this
    administration is, has been, and will likely be in the future.

  21. orionATL says:

    nah.

    you’re right in your suspicions, bmaz,

    as i am in mine.

    there’s a critical piece missing in this puzzle that will explain the dismissal.

    what is it?

    given we are dealing with a feckless prez, obama, the chances are that the ausa was sacrificed to meet some repub’s political demands.

  22. MadDog says:

    @bmaz: Thanks for the extra effort on due diligence bmaz!

    I’m thinking that Burke got it in the neck not for driving the ATF GunRunner clusterfuck bus, but for something after the fact like lying to his DOJ superiors in DC about some facet of GunRunner and then getting caught in that lie.

    The point I am trying to make is that unlike the dubious reign of Fredo as AG, I’d bet that Eric Holder probably doesn’t just blithely fire/force folks to resign without some semblance of cause.

  23. orionATL says:

    @bmaz:

    washington kicks out the ausa for az because his office was “deeply involved” in an atf operation that has come under criticism,

    and then it names his top assistant (scheel) as acting?

    that does not sound like housecleaning to me, more like targeting.

  24. orionATL says:

    apparently this sting has become a cause celebre among right-wing media. that may explain burke’s demisen – obama-banco try very hard never to give a political opponent a hold on them.

    here is an interesting chronology from cns.com,

    a media organization created to counter well-known liberal bias in the media.

  25. rugger9 says:

    Maybe Burke is the next SCOTUS nominee in waiting.

    However, suspicions do validate the use of the tinfoil hats here. As noted above, there is clearly more to this than what has been released, since what is in the record wouldn’t warrant immediate termination, where they forwarded him his coffee cup in a box, so to speak. Such public executions are usually politically driven, or for conduct so bad it’s intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that the guy’s gotta go. This situation hits the exacta, except that Obama is nailing the wrong guy(s).

    So, did Issa schedule hearings or what? The timing is odd since the WH has managed to keep this under wraps as long as they have. The haste puzzles me given that observation.

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