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“At best, this indicates negligence and incompetence in your duties as attorney general,” Mr. Issa said. “At worst, it places your credibility into serious doubt.

“Instead of pledging all necessary resources to assist the congressional investigation in discovering the truth behind the fundamentally flawed Operation Fast and Furious, your letter instead did little but obfuscate, shift blame, berate and attempt to change the topic away from the department’s responsibility in the creation, implementation and authorization of this reckless program.”

On Friday, Mr. Holder denied that emails sent to his office showed that he knew of the Fast and Furious operation and did nothing about it. He said public comments about the inquiry and his involvement with it had become “so base and so harmful to interests that I hope we all share” that he had to publicly address the matter.

Mr. Holder said he took “decisive action” when he learned earlier this year about Fast and Furious in ordering the Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter. He said he also overhauled the leadership at ATF and the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix, which oversaw the investigation.

“It has become clear that the flawed tactics employed in Fast and Furious were not limited to that operation and were actually employed in an investigation conducted during the prior administration,” Mr. Holder said, referring to a separate initiative known as “Operation Wide Receiver” managed by federal authorities during the George W. Bush administration.

“Regardless, those tactics should never again be adopted in any investigation,” he said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the Issa allegations, no matter how many times they are repeated, continue to be “baseless.” She said Mr. Holder took concerns about tactics used in Fast and Furious to the Office of Inspector General, where the operation is now under investigation.

“The department will continue to cooperate with both the inspector general and congressional investigations,” she said. “In the meantime, what the American people deserve is less partisan showboating and more responsible solutions to stopping gun violence on the Southwest Border.”

In the letter, Mr. Issa said documents obtained by congressional investigators show Mr. Holder was aware of Fast and Furious in the summer of 2010 at the latest, not April or May of this year as he testified. Mr. Issa said Mr. Holder was informed about the ATF investigation on at least five occasions and was told that straw buyers were responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug-trafficking cartels.

“Yet, you did nothing to stop this program,” Mr. Issa said. “You failed to own up to your responsibility to safeguard the American public by hiding behind” attorneys in your office, “who you now claim did not bring this information to your attention.”

Mr. Issa said the “most disturbing aspect of this intransigence” is that the Justice Department “has been lying to Congress ever since the inquiry into Fast and Furious began.”

“These firearms were not interdicted. They were not stopped. Your agents allowed these firearms purchases to continue, sometimes even monitoring them in person, and within days some of these weapons were being recovered in Mexico,” he said.