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updated 2/8/2011 6:20:17 PM ET 2011-02-08T23:20:17

The U.S. Justice Department denied a claim made to lawmakers that two guns sold in purchases sanctioned by federal firearms agents were later used in a shootout that left a Border Patrol agent dead near the Arizona-Mexico border.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ronald Weich said in a letter obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press that the claim that agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sanctioned or knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to straw buyers who then brought them to Mexico is false.

Such a claim was made about guns used by bandits in the Dec. 14 fatal shooting of Border Patrol agent Brian A. Terry .

"ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico," Weich said in a letter to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.

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Grassley, who was examining the claim received by his fellow Senate Judiciary Committee members, had previously said that he received information that appeared to partially corroborate the claim.

Grassley spokeswoman Beth Pellett Levine said the Justice Department denied one aspect of allegations presented by whistleblowers and promised to give the senator a briefing. "However, the briefing has still not occurred, and documents provided with the allegations are not consistent with that denial," she said. "There are many specific questions that need to be answered in full by the Justice Department as soon as possible."

Terry was waiting with other agents near the Arizona border city of Nogales when a shootout with bandits erupted. Terry, who was the only person killed in the attack, was part of an elite squad similar to a police SWAT team that was sent to the canyon 13 miles north of the border known for robberies, drug smuggling and violence. No other agents were injured.

Grassley had told the Justice Department in an earlier letter that a buyer purchased three assault rifles with cash more than a year ago in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, and two of those guns were used in the shootout that took Terry's life. His letter didn't elaborate on the possible role of federal agents in the sale of the guns, and it couldn't be determined if the purchases were part of a sting operation.

ATF spokesman Drew Wade declined to comment. Calls to the FBI office in Phoenix, which is investigating Terry's death, also weren't immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

Grassley had previously said an ATF manager in Phoenix questioned an agent who answered questions posed by Grassley staffers about the agency's initiative to reduce the flow of firearms to Mexico — and that the manager accused the agent of misconduct for his contacts with the Judiciary Committee.

Weich said ATF made no attempt to retaliate against one of its agents and asked that the committee staffers not try to contact agents about the probe into Terry's death in an effort to protect investigators from inappropriate political influence.

Weich said the Justice Department will give Grassley a briefing about ATF's initiative to reduce the flow of firearms to Mexico, but won't address pending investigations.

U.S. firearms agents told NBC News in a December 2010 report that an estimated 80 percent of the weapons used by Mexican drug traffickers come from the United States, where cartel leaders are hiring Americans with clean records to make the purchases for them. In the past four years, Mexican authorities say they have seized 90,000 weapons from their nation's drug war.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Mexico's drug war weapons mostly from U.S.

  1. Transcript of: Mexico's drug war weapons mostly from U.S.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now we turn to our ongoing coverage of what we've been calling THE WAR NEXT DOOR , the deadly war being waged by Mexican drug cartels south of the US border. It's no secret the cartels' biggest drug market is here in the US, but it turns out most of the thousands of weapons used to fight the war, a huge arsenal, are also made on this side of the border in the US. NBC 's Mark Potter has been investigating this part of the story.

    MARK POTTER reporting: At a military base in Mexico City , soldiers use torches and hammers to destroy some of the 90,000 weapons the Mexican government says it has seized in the last four years, most from the vicious war with the drug cartels . In that war, Mexican authorities are often outgunned by drug traffickers armed with high-powered weapons . American firearms agents estimate that around 80 percent of those weapons are purchased in the US and are smuggled across the border into Mexico , where gun laws there make it much harder to buy weapons . To obtain weapons in the United States , the Mexican cartels often hire Americans with clean criminal records to buy the guns for them. They're called "straw buyers." Agents say most of the guns are bought over-the-counter in thousands of American gun shops or gun shows along the border and around the country. Under US law it is legal to sell these high-powered weapons , but it's illegal to buy them for someone else. In Oklahoma City , former state narcotics agent Francisco Reyes pleaded guilty to trafficking guns to Mexico . Prosecutors say one of his straw buyers was the late Kyle Wooten , a father of four in need of money who was paid to buy assault rifles.

    Ms. ROBIN TYLER (Kyle Wooten's Mother): Why would anyone need that many and give you cash?

    POTTER: Authorities say straw buyers come from all walks of life and are paid up to $200 per weapon.

    Mr. WILLIAM McMAHON (ATF Deputy Assistant Director of Field Operations): They're being taken advantage of by these cartels and really providing, you know, something that's going to be used to kill someone in Mexico .

    POTTER: US firearms agents say guns bought in a Houston case were found at several Mexican crime scenes, including this one known as the Acapulco Police Massacre , in which four officers and three secretaries were murdered.

    Offscreen Voice #1: Do you have the tag number?

    POTTER: They also say this surveillance video shows weapons being hidden in a warehouse near Fort Worth , Texas .

    Offscreen Voice #2: OK, they're unloading long boxes.

    POTTER: Weapons bound for Mexico to arm La Familia , a murderous drug cartel . To sneak them across the border, guns are usually hidden in cars and trucks.

    Mr. RICK SERRANO (ATF Supervisory Special Agent): They'll hide them in secret compartments, whether it's the spare tire, the gas tank, camper shells. They'll even build secret compartments to put them in there.

    POTTER: US officials say in the last four years they have seized more than 10,000 weapons headed for Mexico , and they're improving cooperation with Mexican firearms agents in tracing weapons there. But Mexican officials still urge the US to do much more to slow the weapons flow now known as the " Iron River ." Mark Potter , NBC News, Mexico City .

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