WASHINGTON DC, United States of America – A US House panel voted Wednesday, June 20 (Thursday, June 21 in Manila) to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, sharpening a political row between the White House and Republican foes less than five months before the election.
Holder was cited for failure to turn over Justice Department documents tied to a probe into the failed “Fast and Furious” gun-running program, even as President Barack Obama intervened with an 11th-hour assertion of executive privilege to withhold some of the documents.
After four hours of tense deliberations the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along straight party lines, 23-17, to censure Holder and send the report to the floor of the House of Representatives for what would be a historic contempt vote.
“This was not the outcome I had hoped for, and today’s proceeding would not have occurred had Attorney General Eric Holder actually produced the subpoenaed documents he said he could provide,” California Rep. Darrell Issa said in a statement after the meeting.
“I still believe that a settlement, rendering the process of contempt unnecessary, is in the best interest of the Justice Department, Congress and those most directly affected by Operation Fast and Furious,” he added.
House Speaker John Boehner announced that the full chamber will vote on the contempt resolution next week should Holder not provide the documents, a move ranking committee Democrat Elijah Cummings labeled “extreme.”
The contempt claim focuses on the botched program that saw guns knowingly smuggled across the border to Mexico in order to track arms flows.
Issa has sought to obtain communications which he says may shed light on when Holder first knew of the gun-running operation and whether there was a cover-up about it.
Holder, who was not at the deliberations, said Issa “rejected all (Justice Department) efforts to reach a reasonable accommodation.
“Instead, he has chosen to use his authority to take an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the executive branch,” he said.
The rationale for Obama’s first use of executive privilege was laid out in a letter by Deputy Attorney General James Cole to Issa.
Cole stressed that the forced production “of these internal executive branch documents generated in the course of the deliberative process… would have significant, damaging consequences.”
Holder himself wrote Obama to argue that such a release would “inhibit the candor of such executive branch deliberations in the future and significantly impair the executive branch’s ability to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight.”
Holder met Tuesday with Issa and Cummings, and offered to provide a briefing on the matter and assurances that further documents would be provided.
The offer was rejected by Issa who had demanded the documents be handed over before the deliberations.
“Our work is not complete, and we need the Department of Justice to cooperate,” Issa said in his opening remarks. “Thus far the cooperation has not been forthcoming.”
Issa, criticized by Democrats for waging a year-long witch hunt against Holder, insisted “our purpose has never been to hold the attorney general in contempt,” but merely to “get the information the committee needs to complete its work.”
The department has provided the panel with 7,600 pages of documents, and Holder has answered congressional questions about Fast and Furious at nine hearings.
From 2009 to 2010, US agents knowingly allowed drug cartels to illegally purchase about 2,000 assault weapons and then sought to trace those guns across the border into Mexico.
Most of the weapons were never traced, but two were found at the scene of the murder of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, which led to the program’s suspension.
Instead of putting the matter to rest, Obama’s intervention was having the opposite effect for some lawmakers.
“How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he’s supposedly never seen?” asked Senator Charles Grassley, who spurred the probe after inquiring about allegations of the gun-running program.
“Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?”
Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel argued that “either this privilege claim is a specious political stunt that the courts will reject, or top White House aides were involved either in Fast and Furious itself or the cover-up.”
Should the House vote Holder in contempt, NBC News reported, the US attorney would convene a grand jury, which could call witnesses and ultimately decide whether to indict Holder. – Michael Mathes, Agence France-Presse