BREAKING: President Obama Refuses to Turn Over Fast and Furious Documents
June 20, 2012
WASHINGTON-President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege for the first time Wednesday, escalating a fight with congressional Republicans over documents about a gun-trafficking probe.
The move threw into uncertainty a possible vote to sanction Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the contempt fight. The panel's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), said the committee was evaluating the White House's assertion.
In a letter to Mr. Issa, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the president had asserted the privilege to block the documents from being released, but he held out the possibility of negotiating an agreement.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) criticized the White House. "Howe can the president exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen?" Mr. Grassley asked.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Mr. Obama's reasoning was similar to that of former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Mr. Schultz said the other presidents "protected the same category of documents we're protecting today," meaning after-the-fact internal materials.
It was the first time Mr. Obama cited executive privilege, compared with six times for the younger President Bush and 14 times for Mr. Clinton during their eight-year tenures. Under the doctrine of executive privilege, presidents have sought to withhold from Congress documents relating to internal deliberations of the executive branch of government.
At issue are Justice Department documents that Messrs. Issa and Grassley have sought and that the department has resisted turning over in the congressional investigation into a botched gun-trafficking probe called Fast and Furious. The department has said the documents reflected internal deliberation or were related to continuing criminal investigations and therefore weren't subject to a congressional subpoena.
Messrs. Issa and Holder met Tuesday for 20 minutes. From their accounts, it has become a game of chicken, with each side insisting the other act first to resolve the standoff.
Exchange of Letters
On June 19, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to President Barack Obama, calling on the president to assert executive privilege over documents in the Fast and Furious probe.
On June 20, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to tell him that the president had asserted executive privilege.
Mr. Holder said Mr. Issa rejected his offer to provide documents because the lawmaker wouldn't agree that they would fulfill a subpoena, effectively ending the contempt threat. Mr. Issa said the attorney general didn't come prepared to provide documents and that the contempt threat couldn't be removed until the documents were produced.
The dispute centers on a 2009-10 operation run by Arizona-based agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, aimed at building a case against suspected smugglers of firearms to Mexico. The agents allowed suspected smugglers to buy about 2,000 firearms, without intercepting the weapons. Some have since turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including at a December 2010 shootout that killed a U.S. border agent.
If a majority of the committee votes for contempt Wednesday, the matter then could be taken up by the full House. If the House votes in favor, then a contempt citation could be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, an appointee of President Barack Obama who is in Mr. Holder's chain of command.
And then things would become legally more uncertain. It isn't clear if Congress can compel an executive-branch official to prosecute the attorney general. In the Bush administration, the House voted to hold White House officials in contempt in a similar documents dispute and the Bush-appointed attorney general ordered the U.S. attorney to disregard it. The matter was eventually settled with the production of documents before a civil-court battle ran its course.
The Justice Department has turned over thousands of documents-about 7,000 or 8,000, depending on which side is counting-and says it is being forthcoming. By comparison, the inspector general has had access to about 80,000 documents, including those the department has declined to share with lawmakers.