By Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice released thousands of subpoenaed documents about the controversial "Operation Fast and Furious" gun trafficking investigation to a congressional committee on Friday, a committee spokeswoman said.
The operation was a failed effort between 2009 and 2011 to stop gun smuggling across the United States' southwestern border by the department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and federal prosecutors in Arizona.
As part of the operation, the department knowingly allowed people to illegally buy guns in the United States and take them into Mexico, court documents showed. A federal judge ordered the department to release the documents to the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The records released on Friday were about the department's internal deliberations on congressional and media inquiries about the investigation, the Justice Department said.
The documents are critical to the committee's efforts to "understand and shine light on what was happening inside DOJ during the time of this irresponsible operation," committee chairman and Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, said in a statement.
As of Friday afternoon, the committee staff had just begun looking through the documents and could not release additional details about them, a spokeswoman said.
The committee sued the department for the documents in August 2012, but the judge's order in January required the department to release a smaller set of documents than those originally requested by the committee.
"Notwithstanding the factual and legal errors in the district court's January 19 order, the Department has decided not to appeal from the court’s judgment," said Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik in a Friday letter to Chaffetz.
The committee appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday for the remaining documents it had requested.
(Reporting by Julia Harte and Julia Edwards; Editing by Andrew Hay and Grant McCool)