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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder clashed heatedly with California Republican Darrell Issa Tuesday as a House hearing raised questions about whether a federal gun trafficking probe that ultimately allowed U.S. – bought guns to reach Mexican cartels might bear some responsibility for the deaths of U.S. agents.

Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has subpoenaed records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regarding the agency’s so-called Fast and Furious gun smuggling investigation. ATF is a component of the Justice Department. ATF acknowledges that more than 1,700 firearms were purchased by suspected agents of Mexican drug cartels during the operation. At least 195 of those guns were later recovered at Mexican crime scenes. ATF said the investigation went on for more than a year in hopes of snaring high-level cartel operatives, but some front-line bureau agents have gone to Congress to complain about the investigation’s strategy.

That strategy has been especially controversial in part because two guns bought during the investigation were recovered near the scene of the murder of border patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona last December; ATF has said that the murder weapon was not a gun from the sting operation. The agency has also stated that a gun used to kill another border agent – Jaime Zapata – in Mexico in March was not part of the Fast and Furious investigation.

But discussion of the two agents’ deaths engendered an emotional exchange between Issa and Holder. Issa asked whether the House had the right to investigate “whether the Justice Department is basically guilty of allowing weapons to kill Americans” to be sold.

“I’m going to take great exception to what you just said,” Holder shot back. “The notion that somehow or other the Justice Department is responsible for those deaths that you mentioned, that assertion is offensive.”

But Issa was not deterred. “What am I going to tell to agent Terry’s mother about how he died at the hands of a gun that was videotaped as it was sold to a straw purchaser fully expecting to end up in the hands of drug cartels?” Issa said.

At that, Holder became emotional and said he’s attended the funerals of agents killed in the line of duty.

“I’ve had to look into the eyes of windows, of mothers who’ve lost sons. I have felt their pain, their emotions. The notion that we are somehow responsible is inconsistent with the facts,” he said.

Issa asked Holder, “Do you agree that Congress has an independent responsibility particularly when U.S. persons have been killed because of a failed or reckless program?”

“I think that there is a legitimate oversight responsibly that Congress has, but I think also Congress has to use that oversight responsibility in a responsible way,” Holder answered.

After the controversy over Fast and Furious first erupted, Holder announced that the Justice Department as a matter of policy does not allow guns to be smuggled into Mexico. And in a letter sent Monday to Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Holder said, “It remains our understanding that ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious did not knowingly permit straw buyers to take guns into Mexico.”

But in a letter responding to Holder yesterday, Issa and Grassley said recent interviews with ATF agents in the Phoenix office contradict Holder’s assertion. Their letter said that according to these ATF agents, “there was a specific strategy implemented to not ‘make every effort’ but rather to avoid interdicting weapons in hopes of making a larger case against higher-ups in the trafficking organization.”

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