By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday sought to blunt political attacks on the Obama administration over a botched gun sting operation, saying that the idea of allowing weapons to go across the border to Mexico came from field agents and prosecutors.
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee issued a report just two days before Republicans on the same panel plan to grill Attorney General Eric Holder about the most recent operation, dubbed "Fast and Furious," in which as many as 2,000 guns may have been trafficked to Mexican drug cartels.
President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats said in the 89-page report that the operations and strategies dated back to the Bush administration and were the brainchild of field agents and prosecutors, not officials at the upper levels of government.
"Unfortunately this strategy failed to include sufficient operational controls to stop these dangerous weapons from getting into the hands of violent criminals, creating a danger to public safety on both sides of the border," Representative Elijah Cummings, the senior Democrat on the committee, said in a letter accompanying the 89-page report.
The panel chairman, Republican Darrell Issa, sent a letter to Holder on Tuesday accusing him of engaging in a cover-up and complaining that the Justice Department will not turn over more documents including those about its response to the scandal.
"If the department continues to obstruct the congressional inquiry by not providing documents and information, this committee will have no alternative but to move forward with proceedings to hold you in contempt of Congress," Issa said.
A Justice Department official said the agency was cooperating with the committee and would continue to do so. The agency has turned over several thousand pages to the committee and allowed some senior officials to be interviewed.
Two guns from the Fast and Furious operation were found at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed during a shootout with illegal immigrants. It was not clear, however, if those weapons fired the fatal shots.
That operation ran from late 2009 to early 2011 out of the Phoenix offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Attorney. The goal was to try to track guns being smuggled from the initial purchaser to senior drug cartel members.
However, in most cases ATF agents did not follow the guns beyond the initial buyer. Republicans have questioned who in the administration knew about and approved the operation and its tactics and when. They have issued subpoenas for documents and for witnesses to testify.
Mexican authorities have complained about the flood of weapons coming into their country from the United States and contributing to the deadly war with the drug cartels.
OFFICIALS SAY THEY DID NOT KNOW
The Obama administration has admitted that the operation and its tactics were unacceptable, but senior Justice Department and ATF officials have denied that they knew of the specific tactics until early 2011 - after it was over.
Republicans have expressed doubts about those assertions and some have demanded Holder's resignation as well as that of his senior aide, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who runs the Justice Department's criminal division.
"Contrary to repeated claims by some, the committee has obtained no evidence that Operation Fast and Furious was a politically-motivated operation conceived and directed by high-level Obama Administration political appointees at the Department of Justice," Cummings said.
The report said that during "Fast and Furious", agents first sought to bring charges for smaller cases involving the gun buyers, known as straw purchasers, but that senior prosecutors wanted to wait to see if they could bring bigger cases.
It also revealed that authorities in the United States and Mexico had recovered 567 weapons from the botched operation as of January 2011, almost two-thirds of which were found in the United States.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)