Lawyers for the Justice Department and a House committee locked in a battle over withheld documents from the failed “Fast and Furious” gunrunning operation met this week to discuss a possible compromise agreement over their release.
In an attempt to resolve a pending lawsuit, lawyers for both sides told U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Tuesday that they had met Monday and would continue to do so, but preferred to proceed without the assistance of the court. The judge scheduled a status conference for Jan. 10.
Republican lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee filed a civil lawsuit asking the court to enforce a congressional subpoena of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for his refusal to turn over the documents sought in the investigation.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said at the time that the lawsuit sought to overturn the Obama administration’s “frivolous executive privilege claims,” forcing the Justice Department to make public documents the committee says could show who knew of the botched investigation and what they did about it.
Mr. Boehner said President Obama and his staff were ignoring an Oct. 11 congressional subpoena — something the courts have long recognized as valid — and that lawmakers were left with no choice but to ask the U.S. District Court in Washington to referee.
After speaking at a New Haven, Conn., conference on violent crime, Mr. Holder told The Associated Press that he thought a deal “can be struck,” but added that if none is reached, “we’ll continue to litigate the case.
“We are prepared as we indicated many months ago to try to strike a deal, to come up with a way in which we can satisfy the legitimate oversight request that Congress has made, understanding that there is a need for privilege, the ability for us in the executive branch to speak candidly with one another,” he said.
The House voted 255-67 in favor of a contempt of Congress citation against Mr. Holder on June 28 for his refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents in the Fast and Furious investigation.
The committee inquiry began in December 2010 after the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry. Two AK-47 semi-automatic weapons purchased by straw buyers as part of Fast and Furious were found at the site of the Terry killing.
The agent’s mother, Josephine Terry, has described her son as “an American hero who died doing his job protecting this nation and its border.” In asking Mr. Obama to retract his claim of executive privilege and release the requested documents, she said she knew the Fast and Furious operation and the Justice Department’s denials of gun walking had embarrassed the president and Mr. Holder, but her son “deserves the truth and full transparency by his government.”
More than 2,000 weapons were purchased from Arizona gun shops during the lengthy operation, about 1,400 of which remain unaccounted for.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents were told to stand down instead of interdicting the weapons. The Fast and Furious operation was supposed to track the guns being sold to Mexican cartels to identify the actual buyers, but the ATF lost track of the weapons.
The White House, which had first said it would try to work out a way to release the documents but that they didn’t show anything incriminating, later reversed course and claimed executive privilege, preventing the Justice Department from releasing the records. Department officials said they were willing to negotiate over the documents but the committee sought instead to litigate the matter.