The chairman of a House committee that recommended a contempt citation against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in its Fast and Furious investigation said on Tuesday President Obama’s assertion of executive privilege in the matter means the White House is covering up its involvement in the botched operation or is obstructing a congressional probe.
“To date, the White House has steadfastly maintained that it has not had any role in advising the [Justice] Department with respect to the congressional investigation,” Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, said in a tersely-worded seven page letter to Mr. Obama.
“The surprising assertion of executive privilege raised the question of whether that is still the case,” he said.
Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also challenged the validity of the privilege claim, saying courts have “consistently held ” that executive privilege applies only to documents and communications that involve the president’s decision-making process.
Accordingly, he said, the assertion could only mean that Mr. Obama “or your most senior advisers” were involved in managing the Fast and Furious operation “and the fallout from it,” or the president was asserting a privilege he knew to be “unjustified solely for the purpose of further obstruction a congressional investigation.”
The committee voted 23-17 last week along strict party lines to recommend to the full House that Mr. Holder be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over hundreds of pages of Fast and Furious documents sought by the panel under a subpoena. The executive privilege assertion came only shortly before the committee was scheduled to vote on the recommendation.
The House is expected to vote on the recommendation later this week.
Mr. Obama previously has denied any knowledge of the Fast and Furious operation, and has stood solidly behind Mr. Holder despite an increasing chorus of calls by Republicans for his resignation.
Fast and Furious was a gunrunning operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) aimed at identifying drug smuggling bosses in Mexico who were buying weapons out of Phoenix area gun shops. More than 2,000 weapons, including AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles and .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifles, were sold and “walked” into Mexico, but the ATF lost track of them.
The operation, which began in September 2009, was shut down only after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry was shot and killed during a December 2010 gunfight with Mexican bandits at an isolated location near the Mexican border, south of Tucson. Two weapons found at the site of the Terry killing later were traced to the Fast and Furious operation.
“The Terry family appeared before the committee on June 15, 2011, to ask for answers about the program that put guns in the hands of the men who killed their son and brother,” Mr. Issa said. “Having been stonewalled for months by the attorney general and his senior staff, the committee issued a subpoena for the documents that would provide the Terry family with the answers they seek.”
That subpoena was issued on Oct. 12, 2011, and while the Justice Department has said it has handed over 7,600 records involving Fast and Furious, Mr. Issa said the department has identified “140,000 pages of documents and communications responsive to the committee’s subpoena.”
White House Spokesman Eric Schultz dismissed the letter, saying Mr. Issa’s analysis of executive privilege has “as much merit as his absurd contention that Operation Fast and Furious was created in order to promote gun control.” He said Mr. Obama’s privilege claim was consistent with executive branch legal precedent set over the past three decades.