President Obama on Wednesday asserted executive privilege over documents sought by a House committee in its investigation of the botched “Fast and Furious” operation.
The last-minute move came just before the start of a scheduled hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a contempt of Congress citation against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who has refused since October to honor a committee subpoena seeking the documents.
In a letter to Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and the committee’s chairman, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the privilege applies to documents that explain how the department learned there were problems with the Fast and Furious operation, which allowed more than 2,000 weapons to be “walked” to drug smugglers in Mexico.
“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,” Mr. Cole said.
Mr. Issa said the president’s “untimely assertion” of executive privilege “falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings,” concerning the contempt citation. He also questioned why the president now was asserting executive privilege more than eight months after the documents originally were subpoenaed.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, questioned the White House’s claim of executive privilege.
Mr. Boehner’s press secretary, Brendan Buck, said that until now “everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice. The White House 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.
“The administration has always insisted that wasn’t the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?” he asked.
“This is a very sad day for the United States of America,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican, concerning the president’s assertion of executive privilege. “There is no way this committee is not entitled to these documents.”
A contempt vote against Mr. Holder became likely after he and Mr. Issa failed to reach an agreement over turning over the documents during a 20-minute meeting Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Mr. Holder did not turn over any records at the meeting and later told reporters he would not turn over Fast and Furious documents unless Mr. Issa agreed to another meeting, where he said he would explain what is in the materials.
“I had hoped that after this evening’s meeting I would be able to tell you that the department had delivered documents that would justify the postponement of tomorrow’s vote on contempt,” Mr. Issa said. “The department told the committee on Thursday that it had documents it could produce that would answer our questions.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who first began the Fast and Furious investigation, said the assertion by the White House of executive privilege raises “monumental questions.”
“How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? 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? The contempt citation is an important procedural mechanism in our system of checks and balances,” he said.
“The questions from Congress go to determining what happened in a disastrous government program for accountability and so that it’s never repeated again,” he said.