The Justice Department sent Congress 64,280 pages of documents it had previously withheld from the botched Fast and Furious gun-walking operation on Tuesday, in a move Republicans said was an admission by President Obama that he overstepped his legal bounds.
Investigators had sought the documents for years, with the House even suing in federal court to force their release. Mr. Obama had asserted executive privilege, claiming the documents were part of the “deliberative process” of White House decision-making and therefore didn’t need to be divulged, but the court rejected those claims.
“When Eric Holder wants to know why he was the first attorney general held in criminal contempt of Congress, he can read the judge’s order that compelled the production of 64,280 pages that he and President Obama illegitimately and illegally withheld from Congress,” said Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
But Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said they had been trying to reach an accommodation on turning some of the documents over for some time, and said the release is part of that commitment.
“We have long been willing to provide many of these materials voluntarily in order to resolve this matter outside of court, and believe that producing them now should bring us a big step closer to concluding this litigation once and for all,” Mr. Fallon said.
The documents have not been released to the public. Mr. Issa said they may contain sensitive information that needs to be protected.
PHOTOS: See Obama's biggest White House fails
Administration officials said that even in complying with the court’s order, they still believe they were correct in their initial assertions of executive privilege. And they said the federal judge who has been refereeing the dispute agreed that deliberative process exemptions apply to documents at the department level, even when presidential communications aren’t involved — a key legal victory for Mr. Obama.
Just as critical, the administration said the documents back up their stance that while the initial gun-walking operation was flawed, there was nothing untoward about the aftermath.
Fast and Furious was an operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that was intended to try to catch gun traffickers in Arizona. Agents knowingly let guns be sold to traffickers, and many of them ended up being carried across the border to reach Mexican drug cartels.
The operation was quickly halted after two of the weapons turned up at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with Mexican bandits, but by then several thousand weapons had gone unaccounted for.
Initially, the Justice Department assured Congress that no guns were ever knowingly allowed to be taken into Mexico. But months later the department had to recant that assurance, admitting that officials did in fact know that agents weren’t tracing the traffickers who were buying the guns.
Congress’s investigation now centers on that letter and the rest of the aftermath, with Republicans questioning whether there was a cover-up to try to protect top political aides to Mr. Obama.
PHOTOS: Biggest celebrity weight loss transformations
The pages turned over this week represent most of the documents Congress was seeking.
The Justice Department is also battling an open-records request from Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest law firm that is seeking many of the same Fast & Furious documents.
The government in that case last month turned over a “Vaughn index” — a list of documents it was withholding and the reason it was denying release. Judicial Watch said some of the documents appear to show Mr. Holder’s personal involvement in crafting talking points and timing release of some of the information surrounding the Fast & Furious investigation.
Mr. Holder has announced his resignation as attorney general, effective upon Mr. Obama winning confirmation of a successor.
In a letter accompanying the submission to Congress, John Tyler, a department official, indicated they’d rushed to put the documents together and indicated that they may have made mistakes and still redacted information that should have been released.
“Given the time constraints, in some circumstances it has been necessary for the department to employ redaction methods used in Freedom of Information Act processing to ensure that law enforcement sensitive information is not disclosed publicly, which may have resulted in more redactions than the department ultimately will want to press in this case,” Mr. Tyler said.
He also said they may have been inconsistent, releasing some information in one place while redacting it in another, which suggests the hasty approach to clearing the tens of thousands of pages.
Mr. Issa, the House’s chief investigator and the man who has pursued the documents, said the redactions may violate the judge’s order, but said the initial release was “nonetheless a victory for the legislative branch, a victory for transparency and a victory for efforts to check executive branch power.”
Mr. Issa also said he will continue to pursue the court case to try to shake loose other documents still being withheld.