By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican lawmaker leading a congressional probe into a botched anti-gun trafficking operation on Thursday suggested he was willing to call off a courtroom showdown with Attorney General Eric Holder if the Justice Department shows more cooperation.
Representative Darrell Issa, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made the comments at a hearing on a government watchdog report released this week on the operation nicknamed "Fast and Furious."
On Wednesday, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz faulted 14 federal agents and prosecutors for the bungled gun case and cleared Holder of any wrongdoing.
Issa and other Republicans in recent months seized on the Fast and Furious scandal, saying the Justice Department engaged in a coverup and lied to Congress about intentionally allowing guns to "walk" into Mexico in hopes of building cases against drug cartels.
The showdown peaked last month when House Republicans filed a federal lawsuit against Holder, seeking to obtain documents that the White House had claimed executive privilege over.
Issa stuck a more collegial tone on Thursday.
While he told Horowitz that the Justice Department "clearly" obstructed the congressional investigation into the operation, he also praised the watchdog report and saying it "concludes a major chapter" in the investigation into Fast and Furious.
Issa urged Holder to give the committee access to the same documents handed over to Horowitz so the panel could complete its investigation and "perhaps eliminate the need to have a protracted fight in the courts."
The committee was given only a small fraction of the 100,000 pages of documents provided to Horowitz, Issa said. He noted that the department this week did hand over some 300 pages of documents it previously had withheld from the committee.
Separately, during a forum sponsored by Univision and Facebook on Thursday, President Barack Obama said the anti-gun trafficking operation was wrong-headed but voiced his support for Holder.
"I will tell you that Eric Holder has my complete confidence," Obama said.
DOJ OFFICIALS OUSTED
Fast and Furious began in 2009 as an effort to stop the flow of firearms from Arizona to Mexican drug cartels. As U.S. agents tried to build an expansive case, they did not pursue low-level gun buyers who bought about 2,000 potentially illegal firearms and trafficked many of them across the border.
The operation was brought to light when a U.S. border patrol agent was killed in December 2010 in Arizona. Two guns connected with the case were found at the scene of the shootout where he died.
The operation raised the fury of U.S. gun owners, who suspected it was being used to make a case for greater gun control. Gun owners are an important Republican constituency and they helped to drive attention to Fast and Furious in Congress and the media.
Some congressional Republicans had accused Holder of covering up the mismanaged operation. The report found no evidence Holder knew of the operation, avoiding a larger embarrassment for Obama, who appointed Holder to his job, in the home stretch of the presidential campaign.
Two senior department officials left the government as the report was made public on Wednesday. Kenneth Melson, former head of the U.S. agency that enforces gun laws, retired, while Jason Weinstein, responsible for oversight of many criminal-related matters, resigned.
The highest-ranking person criticized, Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general in charge of criminal prosecutions, has been "admonished," said a department official.
Issa and other Republican members of the panel suggested Breuer and others should be forced to leave government because they failed to put in place proper safeguards in the operation.
(Reporting By Donna Smith with additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Jackie Frank)