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ATF Chief Tells Congress What He Knows About 'Fast And Furious'

Key lawmakers in Congress are warning the Justice Department not to retaliate against whistle-blowers and leaders at the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. They're reaching out only days after the ATF leader met with congressional investigators to talk about a gun trafficking scandal.

Specifically, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IO) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) say in a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney Gen. Eric Holder that "it would be inappropriate for the Justice Department to take action against [Acting ATF Director Ken Melson] that could have the effect of intimidating others who might want to provide additional information to the Committees."

Grassley, Issa and key committees in the House and Senate are asking who knew about and approved the gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious — a program that some officials hoped would lead them to drug traffickers.

The Justice Department's inspector general is also on the case. Melson, a central figure, went to Congress with his own lawyer on Monday — July 4 — to share what he knows about the program.

Whistle blowers say there could be more than 1,000 loose guns in the U.S. and Mexico that were bought by straw buyers under the watch of ATF. Many weapons turned up later at crime scenes along the Southwest border.

A lawyer for Melson says when all the investigations end, the ATF will come out a lot better than the headlines reflect.

The lawyer, Richard Cullen, said today in an interview with NPR that "often times in a politically charged investigation, whether it's in government or it's in private industry, facts that people think are true in the beginning turn out to be not true. That's why it's so important to let an investigation run its course...and then you'll get to the truth."

He added that, "it's real important to let those investigations play out, to let people testify under oath and be cross examined and then conclusions be made. And if that's done here I think Mr. Melson will be very pleased and so will ATF."

Cullen also said that Melson, a career prosecutor, is not worried about recent reports he may lose his job.

"What Ken cares about is ATF and doing a good job for them and having the confidence of the attorney general and the people in the White House," Cullen said.

In their letter to Holder, Grassley and Issa say that:

"When confronted with information about serious issues involving lack of information sharing by other agencies, which Committee staff had originally learned from other witnesses, Mr. Melson's responses tended to corroborate what others had said. Specifically, we have very real indications from several sources that some of the gun trafficking 'higher-ups' that the ATF sought to identify were already known to other agencies and may even have been paid as informants. The Acting Director said that ATF was kept in the dark about certain activities of other agencies, including DEA and FBI. Mr. Melson said that he learned from ATF agents in the field that information obtained by these agencies could have had a material impact on the Fast and Furious investigation as far back as late 2009 or early 2010. After learning about the possible role of DEA and FBI, he testified that he reported this information in April 2011 to the Acting Inspector General and directly to then-Acting Deputy Attorney General James Cole on June 16, 2011.

"The evidence we have gathered raises the disturbing possibility that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons but that taxpayer dollars from other agencies may have financed those engaging in such activities. While this is preliminary information, we must find out if there is any truth to it."

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.