STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Obama Justice Department is already in the midst of a scandal over a program that allowed weapons to flow into Mexico and the arms of drug cartels. Now newly released documents show that the Justice Department knew last year about a similar program that started back under the Bush administration.

INSKEEP: Both programs were run by Arizona offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. ATF agents began using the tactic as a way to trace weapons trafficking.

MONTAGNE: The latest program, called Fast and Furious, became public after two of its weapons turned up at the site where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed last December. Lawmakers want to know if the ATF program inadvertently contributed to his death.

Critics say the documents that emerged yesterday prove the Justice Department could have flagged the earlier Bush era weapons program for members of Congress investigating the controversy. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A top aide in the Justice Department's criminal division wrote he was stunned to learn that agents has done nothing as hundreds of weapons bought by suspicious people crossed the Southwest border five years ago.

The discovery touched off a series of damage control meetings about how to handle the bad news. But senior political appointees say they didn't tell higher-ups and that Attorney General Eric Holder was insulated from the mess. Lanny Breuer leads the criminal division at Justice.

LANNY BREUER: Knowing what I know now, I wish that I had alerted the deputy or the attorney general at the time. But back in April, I thought that contacting ATF leadership was the right thing to do.

JOHNSON: That was April 2010. Fast forward to this year. Republicans in Congress started asking questions about whether agents knowingly watched guns cross the border in a different failed law enforcement operation during the Obama administration. The Justice Department told lawmakers in February that agents make every effort to seize weapons, but the new documents complicate that picture. And Lanny Breuer is likely to get more questions when he testifies before a Senate committee today.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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