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Attorney general fires back on gun scandal

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Under fire for a botched operation to track guns smuggled to Mexican drug cartels, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Friday his critics seek to score political points, but will not try to stem the flow of weapons across the border.

He lashed back at Republican criticism in the Congress over when and what he knew about the operation in which as many as 2,000 guns were sold to suspected gun traffickers. The guns were not properly tracked and ended up at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico.

In a scathing five-page letter sent to lawmakers, Holder said many in Congress adamantly oppose efforts to reform U.S. gun laws that would make the United States and Mexico safer, while at the same time criticizing the operation.

"It seems clear that some in Congress are more interested in using this regrettable incident to score political points than in addressing the underlying problem," Holder wrote.

"Too many in Congress are opposed to any discussion of fixing loopholes in our laws that facilitate the staggering flow of guns each year across our border to the south."

The letter came a day after President Barack Obama, who appointed Holder, told a White House news conference that he fully supported Holder and has "complete confidence" in him.

The operation has become a headache for the Obama administration and complicated diplomatic ties with Mexico. Known as "Fast and Furious," it ran from late 2009 through 2010.

The chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, Darrell Issa, and the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, have been the leading critics.

They have cited memos they said showed Holder was given details about the operation in 2010 and questioned whether Holder lied when he said in May 2011 that he only recently became aware of the operation.

Holder in the letter replied that his testimony was truthful and accurate and said he has no recollection of the operation's misguided tactics until the public controversy.

Once he learned of the flawed operation, Holder said, he took several steps, including referring it to the Justice Department's inspector general for investigation.

"If Attorney General Holder had said these things five months ago when Congress asked him about Operation Fast and Furious, it might have been more believable," said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the House Oversight Committee.

"At this point, however, it's hard to take at face value a defense that is factually questionable, entirely self-serving, and a still incomplete account of what senior Justice Department officials knew about gun walking," he said.

Two weapons from the operation were found at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed in a shootout with illegal immigrants.

One Republican House member has said that law enforcement and government employees could be considered "accessories to murder."

Holder denounced the statement. "Such irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric must be repudiated in the strongest possible terms," Holder wrote.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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