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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The backlash from a botched gun-smuggling sting in Mexico worsened on Wednesday for the Justice Department when a senior senator demanded the resignation of the chief of its criminal division.
Adding to political pressure for change at the department, Republican Charles Grassley called for the ouster of Lanny Breuer, a key lieutenant to Attorney General Eric Holder, himself under fire over the sting dubbed "Fast and Furious."
Holder "needs to ask for Mr. Breuer's resignation and remove him from office if he refuses," said Grassley in prepared remarks for delivery on the floor of the Senate.
The failures of the "Fast and Furious" program along the U.S.-Mexico border have already led to the resignations of two officials: the U.S. attorney in Arizona, and the acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The operation was meant to track guns as they moved south of the border to members of the violent Mexican drug cartels after being bought by a so-called straw buyer. However, ATF agents rarely pursued the weapons after they were bought.
As a result, hundreds of guns are now missing, though some have been found at crime scenes on both sides of the border.
Questions about the operation are dogging the agency and becoming an embarrassment for the Obama administration, with Republicans eagerly piling on to attack Holder and his staff.
Republican Representative Darrell Issa, head of the House oversight committee, has been probing the issue for months. Dozens of lawmakers have demanded Holder's resignation.
In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Breuer had "acknowledged his mistake" in not alerting the department's leadership about the tactics used.
At a hearing in the Senate last month, Holder expressed regret over both the operation and providing information to Congress about it that later turned out to not be true.
Holder at the same hearing maintained his support for Breuer. "I don't expect to hear a resignation offer from Mr. Breuer," he said at the hearing.
Holder and Breuer were partners at the law firm Covington & Burling in Washington before President Barack Obama brought them into the administration in 2009.
Michael Chertoff, who held Breuer's position during the George W. Bush position and later became secretary of homeland security, said in a Reuters interview that Breuer is "a very able, experienced prosecutor with a lot of integrity, and has been a really able leader for the criminal division."
Chertoff is now a lawyer at Covington & Burling.
The scandal erupted after two guns from the operation were found at the scene after a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was shot dead by illegal immigrants. It was not known if the guns were responsible for the agent's death.
Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Breuer hurt his own credibility by initially denying details of the program.
Then on Tuesday, Grassley said, the Justice Department refused to provide several staff members for interviews with congressional investigators, going back on what he said were previous assurances of cooperation.
"I have long said that the highest-ranking official who knew about gunwalking in Operation Fast and Furious needs to be held accountable," Grassley said.
Reporting by David Ingram and Aruna Viswanatha, Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh