-- WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder lashed back Friday at Republican congressional leaders who suggested he misled a House committee when he testified earlier this year that he was not aware of details about a flawed federal gun investigation that allowed hundreds of weapons to flow to violent Mexican drug cartel enforcers.
In his first public statements since House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called for a special counsel investigation of the matter earlier this week, Holder said his May testimony was "truthful and accurate." He also rejected comments that cast government officials as "accessories to murder."
Holder's remarks were contained in a letter to leaders of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the gun investigation, and leaders of the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate.
"I have not spoken at length on this subject out of deference to the review being conducted at my request," Holder said, referring to a Justice Department inspector general's review of the gun-trafficking investigation.
"In the past few days, the public discourse concerning these issues has become so base and so harmful to interests that I hope we all share that I must now address these issues notwithstanding the inspector general's review."
Holder said he took "decisive action" earlier this year when he learned about the gun investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious, by referring it to the inspector general, and later overhauling the leadership at the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, which oversaw the investigation, and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, which helped manage the inquiry.
"It has become clear that the flawed tactics employed in Fast and Furious were not limited to that operation and were actually employed in an investigation conducted during the prior administration," Holder said, referring to a separate initiative known as Operation Wide Receiver managed by federal authorities during the Bush administration.
"Regardless, those tactics should never again be adopted in any investigation," he said.
Holder rejected claims by GOP congressional leaders who said internal Justice department e-mails addressed to the attorney general indicate that Holder knew about the program well before the time he told the committee in May. He said then that he first became aware of the operation earlier this year, after its details were publicly reported in media accounts.
He said the internal internal Justice memos were part of a raft of reports that are routinely directed to lower-level officials. And he said none of the memos offered details about the flawed gun-trafficking inquiry.
"Prior to early 2011, I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation and it is my understanding that the former United States attorney for the District of Arizona and the former acting director and deputy director of ATF have told Congress that they, themselves, were unaware of the tactics employed," Holder said. "I understand that they have also told Congress that they never briefed me or other department leadership on the misguided tactics that were used in Fast and Furious. "
Smith could not be immediately reached for comment Friday. But in a Friday statement, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, said Holder's May testimony remains "concerning to many of us.''
He said that in a Jan. 31 meeting with the attorney general he "personally handed'' Holder two letters about the Fast and Furious program.