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Critics blast election-eve release of 64,000 pages in ‘Fast and Furious’ probe

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WASHINGTON – The Justice Department released 64,280 pages of documents relating to Operation Fast and Furious on Monday night, more than two years after a House committee originally demanded records from the botched “gun-walking” probe.

A spokesman said the department had “long been willing” to release the documents to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which sued Attorney General Eric Holder for the records.

A federal district judge had given Justice until Monday to turn over documents that the department had argued were protected by executive privilege or provide a list of those that the agency insisted should still be kept private.

But the timing of the release – on the eve of national midterm elections – did not sit well with some member of the committee.

“This is a blatant attempt to hide a massive, sloppy release of information from the American people on Election Day,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, in a prepared statement Wednesday.

Gosar said in a telephone interview that the sheer volume of records and the way they were delivered leaves him with little confidence in the administration. The documents are in such disarray that it will take a long time to sift through them, he said.

The documents are the latest front in a long-running investigation by the committee into the 2009 Phoenix-based gun-trafficking investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious.

The operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives called for ATF agents to allow guns to “walk” – letting people who illegally bought firearms at U.S. gun shops go in hopes of tracing the weapons back to Mexican drug cartels behind the trafficking.

But of the roughly 2,000 weapons that agents let walk, only 700 had been accounted for as of 2012, and no major cartel members had been apprehended as a result of the operation. Two AK-47s that walked as part of Fast and Furious were later found at the scene of December 2010 shootout in Rio Rico, Arizona, in which Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed.

An inspector general‘s probe of the operation in 2012 conceded it was deeply flawed and two ATF officials lost their jobs as a result. The Justice Department also provided thousands of pages of documents as part of the committee’s probe, but refused to release some, leading to the lawsuit by the committee, which also held Holder in contempt.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in August ordered the department to release the documents to Congress, or provide a detailed list of documents that it claimed should still be protected for the the committee to review. She gave Justice an Oct. 1 deadline, but later extended it to Nov. 3.

“We have long been willing to provide many of these materials voluntarily in order to resolve this matter out of court, and believe that producing them now should bring us a big step closer to concluding this litigation once and for all,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the department.

Despite that hope, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a statement Tuesday that the “court case will continue.” Issa, chariman of the committee, said he does not believe the documents are everything the panel wanted and he fears they may have been improperly altered.

Gosar said it may be some time before the committee can wade through the documents.

“It shows very, very poor stewardship of the records,” said Gosar, who called the documents poorly redacted, disorganized and incomplete. “We’re pretty sure it’s not everything we’re entitled to see.”

Gosar, who last year called for Holder’s resignation, repeated that call this week, even though Holder in September announced his retirement.

“He needs to go now,” Gosar said.