A civil lawsuit filed Monday by House Republicans asks a federal court to enforce a congressional subpoena of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his refusal to turn over documents sought in an investigation by a House committee into the failed Fast and Furious gunrunning operation.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said in a statement the lawsuit seeks to overturn the Obama administration’s “frivolous executives privilege claims,” forcing the Justice Department to make public documents the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee claims could show who at the department was aware of the botched investigation and what they did about it.
Mr. Boehner said President Obama and his team 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.
“By stonewalling Congress and ignoring a contempt order, the Justice Department has left the House no choice but to take legal action so we can get to the bottom of the Fast and Furious operation that cost border Agent Brian Terry his life,” Mr. Boehner said.
“After providing — then retracting — inaccurate information to Congress, Attorney General Holder has gone to extraordinary lengths to block access to subpoenaed documents and deny the efforts of the Terry family to get the truth,” he said.
“The White House has been complicit in this effort to hide the truth by making executive privilege claims that have no merit, which is why today’s action is necessary,” the Ohio Republican said, adding that a bipartisan vote by the House to hold Mr. Holder in contempt “made clear that the Obama administration owes the Terry family and the American people the truth.”
He said the House would continue to hold the administration accountable until it provides the documents and answers the questions sought by the committee “to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.”
The House voted a contempt of Congress citation against Mr. Holder on June 28 in a 255-67 vote 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 Terry. Two AK-47 semiautomatic weapons purchased by straw buyers as part of Fast and Furious were found at the site of the Terry killing.
More than 2,000 weapons were purchased from Arizona gun shops during the lengthy operation, about 1,000 of which remain unaccounted for. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) 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, thus preventing the Justice Department from releasing the records.
Department officials have said they were willing to negotiate over the documents but the committee sought instead to litigate the matter.
Republicans on Capitol Hill want to know who approved the ATF operation and have rejected Obama administration assurances that it was lower-level staffers. Released emails and documents paint a complex picture, showing some details either were or should have been noticed by high-level Justice Department officials.
Mr. Holder has disputed those characterizations — though he has already had to retract an official communication to Congress that had false information about the operation itself, and has also officially withdrawn part of his own testimony that seemed to suggest one of his predecessors under President George W. Bush had known of a similar operation.
Among other things, the lawsuit seeks documents showing why the Justice Department took 10 months to retract a Feb. 4, 2011, statement that contained false denials of the investigative tactics used in Fast and Furious. It also notes that minutes before the House committee convened a business meeting to consider the Holder contempt citation, Mr. Obama invoked an eleventh-hour assertion of executive privilege over the documents. The lawsuit asks the federal court to rule Mr. Obama’s assertion of executive privilege invalid and to compel Mr. Holder to produce documents.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said the civil lawsuit “wastes taxpayer dollars and resources,” calling it a “distraction from the urgent business before Congress: Acting to create jobs and grow our economy.” She also said it was aimed at distracting the Justice Department from challenging state laws to tighten voting rules.