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3 replaced over flawed ATF operation; 1,400 guns missing after crackdown on trafficking

The Justice Department replaced three officials Tuesday who played critical roles in a flawed law enforcement operation aimed at major gun-trafficking networks on the Southwest border.

The department announced that the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. attorney in Arizona had resigned, and an administration official said a prosecutor who worked on the operation was re-assigned to civil cases.

The operation, known as Fast and Furious, was designed to track small-time gun buyers at several Phoenix-area gun shops to make cases against major weapons traffickers.

A congressional investigation of the program turned up evidence that ATF lost track of many of the more than 2,000 guns linked to the operation. The Justice Department inspector general also is looking into the operation at the request of Attorney General Eric Holder.

The operation has resulted in gun-trafficking charges against 20 people, and more may be charged.

Kenneth Melson will be replaced as ATF's acting chief by B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota.

Melson will become senior adviser on forensic science in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, a development that brought an objection from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Instead of reassigning those responsible for Operation Fast and Furious, Holder should oust them, he said.

Jones will continue to serve as U.S. attorney in Minnesota when he assumes the top ATF spot today.

In an interview, Jones said that ATF personnel "have been hugely distracted in some parts of the country with other things" and that he plans to listen to people within the agency, then "we'll get everybody refocused, to the extent they are not focused."

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.

The prosecutor who worked on the Fast and Furious investigation, Emory Hurley, was reassigned from criminal cases to civil case work, according to an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

ATF intelligence analyst Lorren Leadmon testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee last month that of more than 2,000 weapons linked to Fast and Furious, some 1,400 have not been recovered.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House panel, said in a statement that "the reckless disregard for safety that took place in Operation Fast and Furious certainly merits changes."

Issa said his committee will pursue its investigation to ensure that "blame isn't off-loaded on just a few individuals for a matter that involved much higher levels of the Justice Department."

The strategy behind Fast and Furious carried the risk that its tracking dimension would be inadequate and some guns would wind up in the hands of criminals in Mexico or the U.S. and be used at crime scenes -- which did happen to some of the guns.

In testimony to congressional investigators, Melson said that in at least one instance ATF agents did not intercept high-powered weapons when they could and should have.

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