President Asserts Executive Privilege in Bid to Forestall Contempt Vote
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday invoked executive privilege to withhold from a Congressional oversight committee some documents and communications among his advisers regarding the failed gun enforcement operation known as “Fast and Furious,” in which weapons purchased in the United States were allowed to cross into Mexico.
Jonathan Ernst for The New York Times
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. spoke to reporters on Tuesday after meeting with Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
It was the first time since Mr. Obama took office that he has asserted the privilege, and it sharpened considerably the long-festering dispute between Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The panel had been threatening to find Mr. Holder in contempt for refusing to hand over some documents.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter to Mr. Issa that the president was claiming privilege over the documents, although he suggested that there might yet be a way to negotiate the release of some of the contested documents.
“We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee’s concerns and to accommodate the committee’s legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious,” the Justice Department letter said. “Although we are deeply disappointed that the committee appears intent on proceeding with a contempt vote, the department remains willing to work with the committee to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues.”
But Mr. Issa said that the House had received no letter from Mr. Obama himself or a log specifying what was being withheld. He also raised doubts about whether executive privilege covered internal deliberative documents that did not relate to confidential communications involving the president himself.
“Our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt,” Mr. Issa said. “Our purpose has always been to get the information the committee needs to complete its work — that it is not only entitled to, but obligated to do.”
Democrats said the committee should delay its vote to consider the assertion of executive privilege and whether to challenge it in court. They accused Republicans of being intent on citing Mr. Holder with contempt in order to inflict political damage during the run-up to the presidential election.
“I treat assertions of executive privilege very seriously, and I believe they should be used only sparingly,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the panel's ranking Democrat. “In this case, it seems clear that the administration was forced into this position by the committee’s unreasonable insistence on pressing forward with contempt despite the attorney general’s good faith offer.”
Because Republicans hold a majority in the House and on the oversight committee, it appeared likely that the committee would vote to recommend holding Mr. Holder in contempt. Such a vote would place before Speaker of the House John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, the choice of whether or when to bring up the proposal for a vote in the full House of Representatives.
On Wednesday, Mr. Boehner's office immediately denounced the president’s action.
“Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice. The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed," said Michael Steel, the spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio."The administration has always insisted that wasn’t the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?”
Democrats argued that Republicans were rushing to do something unprecedented in American history: citing the highest law enforcement official in the land for contempt. (In 1998, the Republican-led oversight committee voted to recommend holding Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt over documents related to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, but the measure was never put before the full House for a vote.) But Republicans said Mr. Holder had no legal right to withhold the documents, and they needed the information to complete the investigation.