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A House committee has voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress – even after the Obama administration asserted executive privilege in an attempt to undercut a congressional investigation of “Fast and Furious,” a program in which the Department of Justice allowed guns to be sold and delivered to Mexican drug cartels.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted 23 to 17 along party lines. Now the contempt resolution goes to the full House of Representatives for a vote.
Today’s vote came more than eight months after the committee issued a subpoena to Holder in 2011 to release all internal Justice Department documents related to the program. Holder responded by only releasing 7,000 documents and withholding thousands more.
In a last-minute effort to stop the vote today, the White House argued that tens of thousands of documents related to “Fast and Furious” were covered by executive privilege and should not be released. Holder had asked President Obama to assert executive privilege in the case.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had scheduled the meeting for this morning when word came from James Cole, a deputy attorney general, who said the president asserted the privilege to block the documents from being released.
Immediately, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has been adamant about getting to the bottom of the scandal and find out who was responsible for the circumstances that led to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, said the White House move raised “monumental questions.”
“How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he’s supposedly never seen?” he wondered.
The vote was briefly delayed after the White House announcement. However, after 20 minutes, Issa announced that the White House’s letter claiming executive privilege would not stop the vote.
Grassley’s question was based on affirmations from the federal government that the president was not involved in the situation.
The issue is that one of the guns delivered to a Mexican drug cartel under the DOJ project was found at the scene where Terry was murdered.
It was Arizona-based agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who apparently tried to build a case against suspected smugglers of firearms to Mexico. They allowed suspected smugglers to buy some 2,000 firearms and deliver them to cartels. The idea was that the weapons were supposed to have been tracked.
But they weren’t.
The resulting scandal has focused on who authorized such activities, who knew about them, and who was responsible.
Issa and Holder had met yesterday to discuss the DOJ’s refusal to turn over thousands of documents on the situation that the House had subpoenaed. Reports say Holder insisted that Issa back off on his investigation.
The committee vote for contempt will be followed by a discussion on the issue in the full House. Ultimately, a contempt citation could be produced and delivered to the U.S. attorney in Washington.
One focal point is a letter delivered to Congress that allegedly was intended to mislead members on the issue. The Justice Department later withdrew the statement.
Analysts said the move on the part of the White House could backfire, in that the investigation now could turn the focus on the White House.
After the committee vote today, Fox News reported Issa released the following statement:
The Oversight Committee voted to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt for his continued refusal to produce relevant documents in the investigation of Operation Fast and Furious. This was not the outcome I had hoped for and today’s proceeding would not have occurred had Attorney General Eric Holder actually produced the subpoenaed documents he said he could provide.
The president’s assertion of executive privilege this morning took us by surprise but did not alter the committee’s conclusion that documents had been inappropriately withheld. Executive privilege only applies to materials that directly pertain to communications with the president and his senior advisors. This assertion indicates that the White House’s role in Operation Fast and Furious and the response to whistleblower accusations has been greater than previously acknowledged. Just yesterday, the attorney general indicated a willingness to produce a small subset of documents on the condition that the committee end its investigation before they were described or made available for review. Today, the president asserted executive privilege to ensure they are never produced.
At the heart of the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious are disastrous consequences: a murdered Border Patrol Agent, his grieving family seeking answers, countless deaths in Mexico, and the souring effect on our relationship with Mexico. Congress has not just a right, but an obligation to do all that it can to uncover exactly what happened and ensure that it never occurs again. After the Justice Department’s earlier false denial of reckless conduct, the committee has a duty to pursue all options to gather and evaluate key evidence.
I still believe that a settlement, rendering the process of contempt unnecessary, is in the best interest of the Justice Department, Congress, and those most directly affected by Operation Fast and Furious. I urge Attorney General Holder and President Obama to reconsider their decision to withhold documents that would allow Congress to complete its investigation.