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The new acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced 11 major personnel changes Wednesday as he tries to move his agency beyond a controversial operation against gun smuggling.
"We are going to hit the reset button," B. Todd Jones said in announcing the changes that assemble a team of experienced law enforcement executives, a move designed to give ATF a fresh start at carrying out its core mission of fighting violent crime. Almost all of the 11 have extensive backgrounds as agents who have worked hundreds of investigations.
A month after taking over, Jones acknowledged these are difficult times for the agency amid two investigations of Operation Fast and Furious, which focused on gun shops in the Phoenix area.
The operation tried to track gun-smuggling beyond straw purchasers to previously unreachable gun-running kingpins, but officials say agents lost track of about 1,400 of more than 2,000 guns identified in the operation. A number of the guns have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.
At a briefing for reporters, Jones said the controversy surrounding Fast and Furious may have diminished the level of trust between U.S. law enforcement officials and their counterparts in Mexico. "That is something that we are going to have to rebuild," he said.
Meantime, the White House brushed aside a request for a special counsel to investigate whether Attorney General Eric Holder misled Congress about his knowledge of Operation Fast and Furious.
"The president believes he's an excellent attorney general and has great confidence in him, and we absolutely know that the testimony he gave was consistent and truthful," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
On Tuesday, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called on President Obama to direct the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate. Smith said newly released department documents suggest the attorney general knew about Operation Fast and Furious as early as July 2010. Smith noted that Holder had told Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, in March of this year that he had recently learned of "concerns" about the program and told Smith's committee in May that he had probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time "over the last few weeks."
Carney said the July 2010 date was raised because that month Holder was sent "a document that's many, many pages long" which mentioned Fast and Furious in a "a phrase that discussed nothing about the tactics that are at issue here."
The 12-page document summarized a host of Justice Department probes in July 2010 and briefly described Fast and Furious as an investigation of a Phoenix-based arms trafficking ring that bought 1,500 weapons and then supplied them to Mexican drug trafficking cartels. It made no mention of the controversial tactic used in the operation known as "letting guns walk" in which agents try to track gun buyers up the chain to major weapons traffickers rather than seizing the arms at the outset.
"The fact is, the attorney general's testimony to both the House and the Senate was consistent and truthful" about what he knew, said Carney. "He said in both March and May of this year that he became aware of the questionable tactics employed in the Fast and Furious operation in early 2011 when ATF agents first raised them publicly. And he then asked the inspector general's office to investigate the matter, demonstrating how seriously he took them."
At the ATF briefing, Jones confirmed the outlines of a separate ATF operation that took place during the Bush administration and used the same controversial gun-walking tactic that Operation Fast and Furious employed.
Jones said Operation Wide Receiver began in 2006, lasted about a year and that the Justice Department under the Obama administration decided to prosecute eight or nine people in the case.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.