By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday sought to distance himself and other senior Justice Department officials from a botched operation to track guns smuggled to Mexican drug cartels, saying they were not involved.
The Obama administration has been under scrutiny after revelations that as many as 2,000 guns were sold to suspected gun traffickers, not properly tracked and ended up at crime scenes in the United States and Mexico.
The operation, dubbed "Fast and Furious", was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona. Congressional Republicans have questioned who approved it and whether senior Justice Department officials were involved.
"The notion that somehow or other that this thing reaches into the upper levels of the Justice Department is something that, at this point, I don't think is supported by the facts," Holder told reporters.
The botched operation already has claimed the jobs of Ken Melson, acting director of the ATF, who was transferred to another Justice Department job, and the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, who resigned abruptly last week.
ATF officials and federal prosecutors had hoped the operation would help them follow the guns to cartel leaders. But ATF agents did not witness many of the purchases or track many of the guns after the initial purchaser resold them.
Holder questioned whether the congressional probe, led by Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate, was politically motivated.
He admitted it was a "flawed enforcement effort," but said, "my hope would be that Congress will conduct an investigation that is factually based and not marred with politics."
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley denied any partisanship to the investigation. "We need to know exactly what happened and why. Then people need to be held accountable to make sure something so stupid never happens again," he said.
Two guns from the operation were found at the scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was shot dead in a shootout with illegal immigrants last December.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)