The Justice Department accused Republicans of playing a "political game of gotcha," after lawmakers investigating Operation Fast and Furious said Attorney General Eric Holder received at least five memos on the gunrunning probe starting in July 2010 in spite of testimony claiming he learned of the program this year.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released a series of heavily redacted memos apparently sent to Holder from Michael Walther, the director of the National Drug Intelligence Center. They appear to describe an operation involving the straw purchase of hundreds of firearms that went to Mexican drug cartels.
But as President Obama voiced "complete confidence" in Holder, the Justice Department put out a scathing statement Thursday afternoon suggesting the memos do not contradict Holder's claims that he was in the dark on the program last year.
"Here they go again. Chairman Issa and Senator Grassley can re-package and re-release the same documents every other day and it won't change the facts: the attorney general's testimony to both the House and Senate committees has been consistent and truthful," the department said.
The department said the "brief" passages were "buried in a few written reports" and did not detail the full extent of the operation.
"Instead of peddling selectively-edited transcripts and distorting questions and answers in some distracting political game of gotcha, these congressional leaders should be focusing their attention on the underlying public safety problem we confront as a nation -- that too many guns are being illegally trafficked to Mexico," the statement said.
The release of the documents comes as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, requests Obama instruct the Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel.
In a statement Thursday, Issa claimed Holder "has failed to give Congress and the American people an honest account of what he and other."
"With the fairly detailed information that the attorney general read, it seems the logical question for the attorney general after reading in the memo would be 'why haven't we stopped them?'" Grassley said.
Through Fast and Furious, hundreds of firearms were allowed to walk across the U.S.-Mexico border, some later turning up at bloody crime scenes. The focus has turned lately to what Holder knew and when he knew it.
He said under oath in May: "I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks."
But documents that started to surface earlier in the week suggested Justice officials at least tried to inform Holder. The latest memos show he was notified of the program repeatedly, though it's not clear to what degree Holder paid attention to the memos.
Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said "some" at the Justice Department are treating Holder as "above the law."
"His answer was untruthful and hid what he and other top Justice Department officials knew about gun walking and Operation Fast and Furious," he said in a statement.
Obama on Thursday voiced confidence in Holder and his handling of the Justice Department.
"He has been very aggressive in going after gunrunning and cash transactions that have been going to these transnational drug cartels," Obama told reporters at a White House press conference.
"He's indicated that he was not aware of what was happening in Fast and Furious and certainly I was not, and I think both he and I would have been very unhappy if somebody had suggested that guns were allowed to pass through that could have been prevented by the United States of America."