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For almost three hours, senators grilled the attorney general today about a government operation that let hundreds of guns flow into Mexico. The operation has been dubbed Fast and Furious. It attracted intense scrutiny following the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Two guns from the operation were found near the agent's body.
Now, congressional investigators are focusing on the Justice Department's response. Attorney General Eric Holder has acknowledged that it has not been entirely accurate. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Eric Holder was solemn and regretful as he addressed the botched gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious.
ERIC HOLDER: This operation was flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution. And unfortunately, we will feel the effects for years to come. This should never have happened, and it must never happen again.
JOHNSON: Holder said troubles with the program, which was supposed to follow weapons into the hands of violent Mexican drug cartels and make big cases against them, should not deter the U.S. from fighting the flow of arms across the Southwest border. And to do that well, the attorney general said, prosecutors need tougher prison sentences to deter gun traffickers and more information about people who buy assault weapons.
For many Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, that missed the point. Here's Iowa Republican Charles Grassley.
SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: The bottom line is that it doesn't matter how many laws we pass if those responsible for enforcing them refuse to do their duty.
JOHNSON: Most of the hearing focused on one key issue: a February 2011 letter the Justice Department sent Congress. The letter said it was department policy to make every effort to intercept weapons before they go to Mexico. That turned out to be misleading.
Last week, Justice Department official Lanny Breuer told Congress he found out last year about guns going awry in a program run by the Bush administration, but he didn't raise a red flag about it.
Ultimately, Justice didn't correct the record until last week. Too little, too late, says Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: That letter is itself false, we now know.
HOLDER: I'd say it - what I said is it contains inaccurate information.
CORNYN: Well, isn't that false?
HOLDER: Well, false - I don't want to quibble with you, but false, I think, implies people making a decision to deceive, and that was not what was going on there.
JOHNSON: That remains an open question for Republican lawmakers who want to know who at the Justice Department reviewed drafts of that letter before it went to Capitol Hill.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, says Republicans have their own botched investigations to answer for. Schumer pointed out a Bush era gun trafficking operation on the Southwest border sent 400 weapons to Mexico back in 2006.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: It's sort of one-sided outrage about the whole issue when we know now that it began - or its progenitor began before you took office, before President Obama took office.
JOHNSON: So far, there's little evidence that details about the botched gun trafficking operations reached Attorney General Holder, but that didn't stop Texas Republican Cornyn from asking about it.
CORNYN: You're not suggesting, are you, General Holder, that it's not your responsibility to have known about this operation, is it?
HOLDER: Well, there are 115,000 employees in the United States Department of Justice. There are...
CORNYN: And the buck stops with you.
HOLDER: I have ultimate responsibility for that, which happens in the department, but I cannot be expected to know the details of every operation.
JOHNSON: Ultimately, the final words about what went wrong and who's to blame could come from the department's inspector general who's conducting her own investigation. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.