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Congress finds sorting Fast and Furious records ‘like pieces of a puzzle’

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WASHINGTON – More than a month after the Justice Department released 64,280 documents on Operation Fast and Furious, few new details about the botched “gun-walking” probe have emerged as congressional staff sorts tens of thousands of .pdf files.

“They dumped them on us,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, of the massive numbers of records. “A lot of it hasn’t even been seen by Congress yet.”

Gosar is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that fought to get the documents. He said staffers are combing through the records, making sure sensitive information is redacted and unnecessary redactions are corrected before they can utilize the records.

But while Gosar questioned the format of the release, watchdog groups said it may have been “a little unusual,” but that they saw nothing improper about it. One said it may even have been the best way for the government to show it had not tampered with any of the documents.

“They certainly didn’t make it easy, but there’s no requirement that they must do so,” said Sean Dunagan, a senior investigator with the government-monitoring group Judicial Watch, which also sought many of the records.

The documents are part of the committee’s long-running probe of Operation Fast and Furious, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation into gun-trafficking operations along the border.

As part of the operation, the Phoenix ATF office let about 2,000 weapons that were bought illegally at U.S. gun shops “walk” in hopes of tracing them to Mexican drug cartels’ weapon-trafficking.

But none of the weapons that walked led to any major cartel arrests. And two AK-47s from Fast and Furious were later found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s killing in a 2010 shootout in Rio Rico, Arizona.

The Justice Department’s inspector general investigated the operation in 2012, and two ATF officials lost their jobs as a result of the findings.

The House committee received thousands of pages of documents relating to the operation at the time, but sued the department for more. Congress also sued Attorney General Eric Holder for the records, and held him in contempt when he refused to release them.

A federal judge ordered the Justice Department to release the requested records to the committee, which the department did on Nov. 3 – the deadline set by the court and the eve of the midterm elections.

Judicial Watch also received some of the documents last month through a Freedom of Information Act request and a lawsuit it subsequently filed in 2012. It got its copies on Nov. 18, two days before Thanksgiving.

Ginger McCall, associate director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the way the documents were delivered makes sense “if you understand the way the government processes it.”

She said that, with any request, the government would gather the information from every source, and if the request involves emails, there is bound to be redundancy. McCall also said the number of .pdf files is not necessarily out of the ordinary.

“It’s not really up to the government to ascertain what’s important,” she said, and to avoid influencing the information, the data is delivered with as little intrusion as possible.

Judicial Watch has posted its share of the records online and made them available to the public.

Gosar said the committee will announce its findings as they are made, but he hopes there is enough information to hold Holder accountable before he leaves office. Holder announced in September that he was resigning, but that he would stay until his successor was confirmed.

“The attorney general is no different than anyone else. He has to obey the laws he enforces,” Gosar said.