Obama claims privilege in gunrunning probe

House panel recommends Holder be held in contempt

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The White House ignited a full-fledged constitutional showdown Wednesday when President Obama asserted executive privilege in refusing to turn over documents subpoenaed by a House committee in its investigation of the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation. The committee replied by voting to recommend Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. be held in contempt of Congress.

It’s a stunning escalation in a 15-month-long fight, and marks the first time Mr. Obama has asserted the privilege during his term of office. But the move could be politically poisonous because courts have held that a president may claim privilege only if he or a top White House aide was part of the deliberations over Fast and Furious — meaning Mr. Obama is either defying precedent or tacitly acknowledging that someone in the White House was involved.

House Republican leaders said Wednesday afternoon that they will hold a contempt vote in the full House next week unless Mr. Holder produces the requested documents.

“Despite being given multiple opportunities to provide the documents necessary for Congress‘ investigation into Fast and Furious, Attorney General Holder continues to stonewall,” House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in a joint statement. “Fast and Furious was a reckless operation that led to the death of an American border agent, and the American people deserve to know the facts to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the contempt recommendation along strict party lines after more than six hours of rancorous debate. Twenty-three Republicans, led by Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa of California, voted to send the recommendation to the House, while 17 Democrats were opposed.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, whispers to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, during a Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing. The panel voted to recommend that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. be held in contempt of Congress in the "Fast and Furious" gun-walking case. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)

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Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, whispers to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, ... more >

The White House defended its assertion of executive privilege, saying Mr. Obama has used the tactic only once, far less often than his predecessors, and that Republicans were spending their time on “a politically motivated, taxpayer-funded election-year fishing expedition.”

“In fact, the Justice Department has spent the past 14 months accommodating congressional investigators, producing 7,600 pages of documents and testifying at 11 congressional hearings,” said White House communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

Mr. Holder called the committee vote an election-year tactic intended to distract attention. He said the Justice Department made “unprecedented accommodations” in responding to committee requests for information, spending “countless hours compiling and providing thousands of documents” to Mr. Issa and the committee.

Border slaying sparks probe

The inquiry into Fast and Furious began with allegations by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents who said — as whistleblowers — that the government allowed the transfer of illegally purchased weapons that were found at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry. The agent died during a Dec. 15, 2010, shootout with Mexican bandits just north of the border, south of Tucson, Ariz.

The goal of Fast and Furious was to feed weapons to gun traffickers and follow them to drug cartel bosses in Mexico. But the ATF lost track of the weapons, and more than 2,000 guns — 600 of which remain unaccounted for — found their way to Mexican drug smugglers.

On Wednesday, the Terry family attorney, Pat McGroder, released a statement from the agent’s parents, Josephine Terry and Kent Terry Sr., saying Mr. Holder’s refusal to fully disclose Fast and Furious documents and Mr. Obama’s assertion of executive privilege “serves to compound this tragedy.”

“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,” it said.

Mr. Pfeiffer said the operation was developed by ATF field offices and dated back to the “the previous administration.”

But Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who first began the Fast and Furious investigation, said the Justice Department on Wednesday retracted a statement by Mr. Holder last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee that his predecessor under President George W. Bush, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, was briefed about gunwalking during Operation Wide Receiver.

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