By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Thursday senior Justice Department officials should have known about the controversial tactics that led to a bungled operation to track guns to Mexico because some details were practically at their fingertips.
The Obama administration has been under fire for almost a year about the operation dubbed "Fast and Furious". The program was meant to determine how guns were being smuggled from Arizona to violent drug cartels, but the guns were not fully tracked.
The operation, which ran from late 2009 until early 2011, came to light after two weapons from it were found in Arizona in December 2010 near the scene where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with illegal immigrants.
While as many as 2,000 weapons were sold by gun dealers to people believed to be serving as straw purchasers for the Mexican drug cartels, fewer than 600 were recovered as of January 2011.
The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Republican Representative Darrell Issa, issued a memorandum detailing how other federal law enforcement agents were already tracking drug cartel gun smugglers a year before Terry was killed.
He and other Republicans on the panel said at a hearing that senior Justice Department officials should have also known that guns were trafficked without surveillance from wiretap applications and details they had about a similar sting during the Bush administration known as "Wide Receiver".
"All of those people should be ashamed that Brian Terry is dead because they didn't do as good of a job as they should," Issa said during the hearing.
Lawmakers want to know "how you'll ensure for the American people that this will not happen again," he said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has acknowledged that allowing guns to go across the border unmonitored was wrong but that he and other senior Justice Department officials and its Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were left in the dark until it was over and the controversy erupted.
"It's unacceptable, it's stupid, it's dangerous, and not something that this Department of Justice can ever do," Holder told the panel, referring to the tactics used in the operation.
He said two senior aides who knew that guns were allowed to be trafficked during the Bush administration regretted not making the connection to "Fast and Furious".
Holder raised questions about whether the wiretap applications did in fact discuss the tactics and said talking about those documents publicly could violate court orders.
Holder said he expected to hold people accountable in a court of law, with maximum criminal charges, for Terry's murder within six months and possibly by the end of March. He also said whoever authorized the tactics would likely be fired.
Republicans expressed frustration that it was taking so long for disciplinary action.
"You told people that you were mad, you were upset. That to me is silly. You've not taken action, you've not fired anybody," said Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
Holder said he had moved ATF personnel around and barred the use of gun walking. Further action against those responsible would have to wait for the Justice Department's inspector general to finish her investigation and report, he said.
"To the extent that we find out who precisely was involved in this or who gave that order, I can assure you that unless there is some truly compelling circumstance, that person, those people, will be removed from federal service," Holder said.
(Additional reporting by James Vicini; editing by Mohammad Zargham)