House committee voted today to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt after President Obama asserted executive privilege over documents in the "Fast and Furious" operation.
Holder's Justice Department requested that Obama claim the privilege and withhold documents concerning the botched gun-smuggling operation and the death of a U.S. border agent.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along party lines to recommend that the full House cite Holder for contempt, after a full day of sniping between folks on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
The "decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?"
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer shot back that House Republicans are on a "politically motivated, taxpayer-funded, election-year fishing expedition."
Pfeiffer said Republicans should concentrate instead on extending federal funding for transportation projects and student loans.
On the gun-smuggling operation, he said "the Justice Department has spent the past 14 months accommodating congressional investigators, producing 7,600 pages of documents, and testifying at 11 congressional hearings. Yet, Republicans insist on moving forward with an effort that Republicans and objective legal experts have noted is purely political."
Agents involved in Operation Fast and Furious lost track of some of weapons. Two guns were later found at the scene of the killing of a U.S. border patrol agent, Brian Terry.
In a statement issue by their attorney, Terry's parents condemned the Obama administration for invoking executive privilege.
"Our son, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, was killed by members of a Mexican drug cartel armed with weapons from this failed Justice Department gun trafficking investigation," said Josephine Terry and Kent Terry Sr. "For more than 18 months we have been asking our federal government for justice and accountability."
The Terrys also said that "our son lost his life protecting this nation, and it is very disappointing that we are now faced with an administration that seems more concerned with protecting themselves rather than revealing the truth behind Operation Fast and Furious."
The Republican National Committee slammed Obama for "hiding" behind executive privilege, noting that Obama had criticized President George W. Bush when he invoked the same in 2007 during a controversy over the firing of U.S. attorneys.
The assertion of executive privilege inspired a back-and-forth between Obama's re-election team and that of Republican opponent Mitt Romney.
"President Obama's pledge to run the most open and transparent administration in history has turned out to be just another broken promise," said Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul.
The Obama campaign responded with a statement saying "we look forward to a debate with Mitt Romney about transparency and how he erased his hard drives as governor of Massachusetts and refuses to release his tax returns, reveal his campaign bundlers, say how he'd pay for his tax plan, or make public his fundraisers."
The Justice Department explained its executive privilege request in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It said that executive privilege applies to documents that explain how the department learned of problems with the investigation.
"I write now to inform you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the relevant post-February 4, 2011, documents," writes Deputy Attorney General James Cole. "We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee's concerns and to accommodate the Committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious."
Republicans said they are stunned by the president's move, while Democrats on the Oversight committee accused GOP lawmakers of carrying out a political witch hunt.
"The president's assertion of executive privilege creates more questions," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "That brings into question whether Eric Holder knew about it and how much the president knew about it."
In a letter written to Obama on Tuesday, Holder said he was "very concerned that the compelled production to Congress of internal Executive Branch documents generated in the course of the deliberative process concerning its response to congressional oversight and related media inquiries would have significant, damaging consequences."
The White House made the move after Issa and Holder met late Tuesday evening for about 20 minutes in an unsuccessful, last-minute effort to head off today's hearing to consider whether to hold Holder in contempt. Holder told reporters following the meeting that he offered to provide the documents on the condition that Issa gave his assurance that doing so would satisfy two committee subpoenas and resolve the dispute.
Issa is particularly interested in seeing documents that shed light on why the Department of Justice decided to withdraw a February 2011 letter sent to Congress denying allegations of gun-walking.
Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, noted that the Justice Department had already turned over more than 1,000 pages of documents and questioned Issa's motives.
"It seems clear that you had no interest in resolving this issue, and that the committee planned to go forward with contempt before we walked into the meeting with the Attorney General," Cummings said.
The investigation into the operation was spurred after Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, inquired into whistle-blower allegations that the government had allowed the transfer of illegally purchased weapons that were found at the scene of the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Grassley slammed the White House on Wednesday for the move.
"How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement?" Grassley said in a statement. "How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?"