The Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives voted along party lines 23-17 on June 20 to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with into an inquiry into the controversial Operation “Fast and Furious,” just hours after President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over documents relating to the issue. The committee had sought to obtain Justice Department documents related to the operation that was administered from the Phoenix AZ of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011, with the backing of the U.S. attorney there. The vote makes Holder the first of Obama’s Cabinet held in contempt by a congressional committee.
The panel’s actions are to be reported to the full House, where Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders have scheduled a floor vote for next week unless Holder surrenders the documents before that time. If the House measure is passed, it would then move to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen Jr., who is an employee of the Justice Department and thus of Holder. Contempt of Congress is a federal misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $100,000 fine and a maximum one-year sentence in federal prison.
(AK-47 variants, among the type sold in the thousands by Fast & Furious)
In response, the embattled Holder called the vote a “divisive action” that “does nothing to make any of our law enforcement agents safer.” “It’s an election-year tactic intended to distract attention -- and, as a result -- has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: Protecting the American people,” Holder said.
Obama’s move to invoke executive privilege by withholding the documents sought by the Congressional committee is his first use of that privilege in response to a Congressional investigation. A clash between the relative powers of the two branches of government is likely to escalate. Before the committee vote, Holder wrote to Obama saying that the sharing of the Fast and Furious documents “would raise substantial separation of powers concerns and potentially create an imbalance in the relationship” between Congress and the White House. Releasing the documents “would inhibit candor of such Executive Branch deliberations in the future and significantly impair the Executive Branch’s ability to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight,” Holder wrote.
Striking a defiant posture, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer accused Republicans on June 20 going on a “taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition.” In a statement, “Given the economic challenges facing the country,” Pfeiffer said, adding, “we believe that House Republicans should work with the rest of Congress and the president to create more jobs, not more political theater.”
Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), who leads the Government Oversight Committee, said of Obama’s refusal to turn over the requested documents is an “untimely assertion” of executive privilege that “falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” concerning the contempt citation. Issa also questioned why Obama is now asserting executive privilege more than eight months after the documents originally were subpoenaed.
Executive privilege has been invoked throughout U.S. history by presidents to preserve confidential information from Congressional scrutiny. Even so, the president’s executive privilege is not absolute and can be overturned by courts. However, in most cases, these disputes are handled by negotiations between the two branches.
The Fast & Furious operation involved the ATF allowed the sale of thousands of firearms to known gun traffickers who then conveyed the weapons through straw purchasers to Mexican narco-terrorists. Following this gun-walking, the firearms were tracked in the hope of tracing them to the drug cartels and thus help with prosecutions. In the end, Fast & Furious firearms were involved in numerous crimes on both sides of the U.S/Mexico border, including the murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.