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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican congressional investigators demanded on Wednesday Attorney General Eric Holder turn over documents and communications about a bungled operation that allowed guns to be smuggled to Mexican drug cartels from the United States.
Escalating the battle between Holder and the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, the panel subpoenaed the Justice Department seeking voluminous information from senior administration officials.
The committee has been investigating how the operation, run out of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Phoenix office, failed to track guns after they were bought by suspected suppliers to the Mexican cartels.
The ATF is part of the Justice Department headed by Holder. The operation had been designed to crack down on the flow of weapons to violent drug cartels.
"The documents this subpoena demands will provide answers to questions that Justice officials have tried to avoid since this investigation began eight months ago," said Republican Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the oversight panel.
Guns bought in the operation, which began in late 2009 and was dubbed "Fast and Furious," were found at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Two weapons were discovered at the scene of a shootout in which a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed. It is not known whether they fired the fatal bullets.
The committee subpoenaed communications to and from Holder, his deputies, ATF officials, federal prosecutors in Arizona on the case and White House officials related to the operation.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that they have been willing to work with the committee to answer legitimate questions. "However, this subpoena shows that Chairman Issa is more interested in generating headlines than in real oversight important to the American people," she said.
The subpoena also sought investigative reports from various Justice Department agencies and information about weapons found where the Border Patrol agent was killed.
This is the second subpoena issued in the congressional investigation. The first was issued earlier this year to the ATF seeking documents and communications about the program and the death of the agent.
Republicans have questioned who approved the operation and tactics that allowed guns to be smuggled to the drug cartels in Mexico. Holder had denied knowing about the operation or tactics until earlier this year when the scandal erupted.
Issa has accused several Justice Department officials of knowing earlier about the operation and tactics, pointing to memos addressed to Holder and others that broadly referred to it.
However, so far no evidence has emerged that Holder or the head of the agency's criminal division, Lanny Breuer, knew specifically about the operation or tactics before this year.
Holder and Issa have engaged in heated exchanges via letters, with each side questioning the other's political motives. The Justice Department's inspector general is also investigating the matter.
Editing by Howard Goller and Bill Trott