The head of the U.S. Justice Department launched his strongest personal defense yet in the growing furor over Operation Fast and Furious, the controversial sting targeting Mexican drug cartels and American gunrunners.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said for the first time that not only he but also other higher-ups at the Justice Department were not aware of the operation as it was being carried out. Holder also suggested politics could be a driving force behind Republican lawmakers' forceful inquiries into the matter.
"The notion that somehow or other this thing reaches into the upper levels of the Justice Department is something that. ... I don't think is supported by the facts," Holder told reporters at an unrelated press conference in Washington. "It's kind of something I think certain members of Congress would like to see, the notion that somehow or other high-level people in the department were involved. As I said, I don't think that is going to be shown to be the case -- which doesn't mean that the mistakes were not serious."
A spokeswoman for the Republican leading a congressional investigation described Holder's comments as baseless "whining," and earlier Wednesday the House Republican himself said the issue is about more than who knew what, when.
"Whenever you talk about human mistakes, you have to say, 'What was in the system that allowed that human mistake to go on and perpetuate itself?'" Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said on Fox News Channel.
At issue is an Arizona operation launched in late 2009 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which planned to follow gun purchasers in hopes that suspects would lead investigators to the heads of Mexican cartels. But hundreds of high-powered rifles and other guns ended up in Mexico, and many now accuse ATF and the Justice Department of letting the guns "walk" even after safety concerns were raised.
Weapons linked to the program were used in a December attack along the Southwest Border that killed U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Months later, Issa launched his committee's investigation, as the Justice Department's inspector general also opened an inquiry, at Holder's direction.
"Our committee is the Government [Oversight and] Reform Committee," Issa said Wednesday. "We are about making sure that there is a system to prevent this in the future. When we have assurances that system is in place then our job is done."
But Holder seemed to question whether that is all Issa and other Republican critics are after.
"My hope would be that Congress will conduct an investigation that is factually based and not marred with politics," Holder said.
Holder has said repeatedly he was not aware of the operation as it was unfolding, and others have said no one at the Justice Department in Washington was informed of it, but Issa insists Holder at least "should have known."
"I believe it was his obligation to know, " Issa told Fox News in June. "The fact that there was a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in Eric Holder's office is to say really he wasn't doing his job."
Holder, however, noted he leads a massive department with all sorts of functions and obligations
"There are an awful lot of things that go on in the Justice Department," he said. "There's Operation Fast and Furious, [and] I'm sure there's Operation 'Fill In The Blank' going on right now that the people here in the department are not aware of."
Holder said he, as head of the department, has tried to "place in the field the responsibility and the discretion for enforcement activities," while setting "broad parameters here in the department" that he expects to be followed outside of Washington.
Holder has repeatedly denounced the tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious, calling the operation Wednesday a "flawed enforcement effort."
Recently, the man who headed ATF in the midst of it, Ken Melson, was reassigned, and U.S. attorney Dennis Burke, who oversaw the prosecution of cases coming out of the operation, abruptly resigned.
Nevertheless, at least three men have been charged in connection with the murder of agent Terry, though only one is in U.S. custody. And the Justice Department recently informed lawmakers that cases coming out of Operation Fast and Furious will now be led by prosecutors from outside Arizona.