Nick Ut/The Associated Press
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Attorney General Eric Holder faced sharp questions from congressional Republicans Tuesday about a controversial gun-trafficking case that was the subject of an iWatch News investigation this spring. But Holder firmly rebuffed requests to oust a Justice Department official involved in overseeing the case.

The venue for these pointed exchanges was a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about “Operation Fast and Furious,” an ill-conceived anti-gun-trafficking probe conducted by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The gun investigation allowed thousands of weapons to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

As the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News reported in March, federal prosecutors and the ATF permitted some 2,000 guns to be purchased and retained by suspected “straw” buyers with the expectation they might cross the border and even be used in crimes while the case was being built. The bureau had previously been criticized for focusing on lowly straw buyers rather than high-level traffickers.

ATF officials were hoping to follow the guns in hopes of making cases against higher-level traffickers. The decision was met by strong objections from some front-line agents who feared they were allowing military-style weapons to “walk” into the hands of drug lords and gun runners, internal agency memos show.

Some of the sharpest disagreements at the hearing involved Lanny Breuer, the head of the Department of Justice criminal division, whose comments about the case have proved controversial. Holder pointedly declined requests from Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the panel’s ranking Republican, that Breuer be asked to resign.

The attorney general also politely refused to disclose documents that could reveal when Breuer first learned about the unorthodox gun-tracking tactics used by the ATF in both Fast and Furious and “Wide Receiver,” a recently revealed predecessor program that began during the Bush administration.

Assistant Attorney General Breuer told a Senate judiciary subcommittee last week that he found out in 2010 that federal agents had allowed guns to flow illegally onto U.S. streets and into Mexico between 2006 and 2007. This tactic, known as “gun walking,’’ was also a key part of Fast and Furious, the Obama administration gun-trafficking program that is under investigation by Republican lawmakers and the Justice Department’s inspector general.

Breuer’s admission contradicted a Feb. 4 letter to congressional investigators. “The letter could have been better crafted,” Holder said. “I regret that,” he added, but did not offer any further information.

“Why would you risk contempt of Congress to prevent us from finding out who reviewed the drafts of that letter and whether they knew that they contained false statements?” the Iowa Republican asked.

“We will certainly try to work with you and try to provide you with all the relevant information we can,” said Holder.

Grassley had privately expressed his concerns to Holder about internal Justice talking points regarding the ATF whistleblower that were leaked to the press. Holder bristled when the senator asked him to name and shame the DOJ officials responsible for attempting to smear the former ATF agent.

“As you said, we had a ‘private conversation,’” he said. “In a different time in Washington, I’m not sure that what you just said would have been shared with everyone here.” Holder said leaks from the agency are being reviewed and he is “not in a position to comment on ongoing investigations.”

Democrats and Holder used the hearing to press the case for stronger laws to prevent gun trafficking. “Fast and Furious was a flawed response to, not the cause of, the flow of illegal guns,” the attorney general said in his prepared remarks. He urged “congressional leaders to work with us to provide ATF with the resources and statutory tools it needs to be effective.”

iWatch News reported in April that authorities feel they are handcuffed in their efforts by a lack of resources and an absence of statutes to outlaw gun trafficking.

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