Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pauses for a moment as he speaks at a rally in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
File: In this Feb. 28, 2007, photo, ATF Chicago chief Andrew Traver displays an assault weapon from a confiscated cache.AP
ATF Acting Director Kenneth MelsonATF.gov
With the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives facing its worst scandal in decades, the man nominated by President Obama to take over as its next chief is headed to Washington this week to meet with top Justice Department officials.
Andrew Traver was nominated in November by President Obama to become the permanent ATF director, but his nomination has been held by objections from groups that say Traver is hostile to the rights of gun owners.
Nonetheless, Traver's return to Washington Tuesday for a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole could be the first step toward ousting acting director, Kenneth Melson.
Melson has led the agency since April 2009 supplanting a Bush administration acting director who was also unable to get Senate confirmation over the objections of gun rights groups.
But it was during Melson's tenure that the ATF Phoenix office began "Operation Fast and Furious" in the fall of 2009. Fast and Furious was described as an effort to trace and stop the trafficking of illegal guns but instead allowed thousands of guns to get into the hands of Mexican cartel members.
Officials at the Justice Department and the White House say it's "speculative" to conclude that Traver's arrival in Washington is a sign that the Obama administration is looking to oust Melson in the wake of the politically damaging operation.
But The Wall Street Journal, which was first to report Traver's return, said sources indicated that the administration is weighing whether to name him as acting director or choose another interim chief while awaiting Senate action on his nomination.
Fast and Furious has been the center of an investigation by Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as well as Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
The two say they learned about the program after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010. At the crime scene were two guns linked to the Fast and Furious operation.
At an Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing last week, three federal firearms investigators testified that they wanted to "intervene and interdict" loads of guns, but were repeatedly ordered to step aside to allow suspected smugglers to carry the weapons over the border.
Grassley said that he wants to know from how high those orders came.
"The president said he didn't authorize it, and that the attorney general didn't authorize it. They have both admitted that quote unquote a serious mistake may have been made," Grassley testified. "There are a lot of questions and a lot of investigating to do, but one thing has become clear already -- this was no mistake."