A House committee had sought the documents for its investigation of the Justice Department's role in the Fast and Furious initiative, in which agents from the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms allowed weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels in order to follow where the guns went. The program went awry, with the government losing track of hundreds of firearms and a U.S. Border Patrol agent perishing in a firefight where some of the guns were afterwards found on the scene.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is now poised to vote on holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for obstructing the investigation. Holder met with members of the House Oversight Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee in an effort to strike a compromise, but that attempt collapsed.
Instead, Holder exhorted Obama late on Tuesday night to wield his executive privilege, writing in a letter that sharing the documents would significantly impair the Executive Branch's ability to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight.
In a subsequent letter to Committee Chair Darrell Issa, a Republican, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote that the administration was asserting executive privilege and pronounced the administration to be deeply disappointed that the committee was pushing ahead with a contempt vote. Issa said in a Wednesday morning hearing that the administration had missed its chance to avert a vote.
Had he turned over those documents we would not be here today. Issa said. We would be evaluating these documents. But until we evaluate documents to show we can bring a close to the contempt vote or the entire investigation we cannot assume that.
Republicans on the panel cast the looming vote as a necessary part of the committee's investigative functions, saying someone must be held responsible for the unraveled program and the resulting death of a U.S. citizen. They have accused Holder of dragging his feet and consistently resisting their requests for more information.
There is no one person in this country that's above the law, and I believe this committee has a duty, an obligation and a right to investigate this matter, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz. This is not about Eric Holder, Chaffetz added. This is about the Department of Justice and justice in the United States of America.
But Democrats argued that the committee is engaged in a witch hunt focused disproportionately on punishing Holder. Referencing the harsh questioning Holder has faced, Rep. Edolphus Towns of New York said he had never seen anyone treated in that fashion when they appeared before the committee.
It's painful to sit here and watch [the investigation] turn into partisan political theater, Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts said, joining other Democrats in charging that the committee had stopped short in exploring reforms that could prevent a repeat of Fast and Furious.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) described the escalating conflict in terms of a clash between the Obama administration and Congress and said it now fell to the courts to decide whether Holder is obligated to turn over the documents.
The assertion of executive privilege has taken this proceeding into a whole new realm, Kucinich said. It would seem to me that before this committee would take any action on the claim of contempt we would first appropriately have to apply to a court to order the production of the records.