By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has agreed to provide congressional investigators confidential records on a failed gun-trafficking operation during the Obama administration known as "Fast and Furious" that long has been criticized by Republican lawmakers.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department would hand over documents to the Republican-led House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that had been withheld by Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration.
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The agreement reached by Republican President Donald Trump's administration will effectively end a six-year long legal battle in which the committee had gone to federal court to try to enforce a subpoena it had issued to obtain the records.
Congressional Republicans have been pressing the Justice Department for years about the operation. Named after a movie about car racing, the operation sought to curb gun-trafficking criminals who were selling weapons to Mexican drug cartels.
In June 2012, the Republican-led House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder, an Obama appointee, in contempt for failing to turn over documents about the operation. The committee sued Holder for access to the documents in August 2012. Obama asserted executive privilege to block the disclosure of the documents.
Democrats at the time accused Republicans of engaging in a partisan witch hunt.
In an effort to build bigger cases against major gun traffickers who were selling arms to Mexican cartels, U.S. law enforcement officials elected not to prosecute lower-level offenders transporting more than 2,000 illegal guns.
The operation and its flaws became public after two of those firearms were found in Arizona at the scene of a fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
In September 2012, the Justice Department's inspector general released a report faulting 12 department employees for failures related to the operation. The report vindicated Holder, concluding he neither conceived the operation nor attempted a cover-up.
Holder, now a partner at the law firm Covington and Burling LLP, could not be immediately reached at his office on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Howard Goller and Will Dunham)