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Obama backs Holder, but hedges on ‘Fast and Furious’

President Obama said he has "complete confidence" in Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., although his response Thursday to a question about the "Fast and Furious" gun-running probe suggested something less than certainty about when Mr. Holder learned of the controversial program.

Mr. Obama had this to say at a news conference about the attorney general's claim that he was in the dark about the program, run by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which let U.S. weapons enter Mexico for use by drug cartels until last spring as part of a sting operation:

"He's indicated that he was not aware of what was happening in Fast and Furious," Mr. Obama said. "Certainly I was not."

Justice Department memos show that Mr. Holder was told about the controversial program as early as July 2010, apparently contradicting testimony he gave before a House Committee in May that he found out about it only weeks before. Republican lawmakers said Thursday that Mr. Holder received at least five weekly memos beginning that month about the investigation.

Mr. Obama praised the attorney general for being "very aggressive" in prosecuting gun running and illegal cash transactions involving the cartels.

"He's assigned an inspector general to look into how exactly this happened," the president said. "And I have complete confidence in him, and I've got complete confidence in the process to figure out who, in fact, was responsible for that decision and how it got made."

Some Republican lawmakers have called for an independent counsel to investigate the matter.

Republicans have raised questions on whether a Justice Department inspector general can investigate Mr. Holder fairly, because the investigator would answer to Mr. Holder. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that Mr. Holder requested transcripts of the investigators' meetings with Kenneth Melson, then acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Mr. Holder requested the transcripts on behalf of the inspector general's office.

"Since the [inspector general's office] is supposed to be conducting an independent inquiry, it seems odd that the department would make a document request on behalf of that office," the GOP lawmakers wrote to Mr. Holder.

Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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