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Fast and Furious probe: AG Eric Holder held in contempt by committee

June 20, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
A House of Representatives committee has voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to turn over Justice Department documents related to the flawed Operation Fast and Furious.

The straight party-line vote was 23-17. The full House of Representatives could consider the contempt resolution as soon as next week. Technically, if the full House approved a contempt citation, there could be a federal criminal case against Holder, but history strongly suggests the matter won't get that far.

The White House dismissed the vote and the proceedings as "political theater."

Hours before the vote, President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege for the first time to withhold the documents after Holder formally requested presidential intervention.

"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," deputy attorney general James Cole wrote to Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House oversight and Government Reform Committee before the vote was held.

The documents are at the center of the standoff between Holder and Issa, who called the president's action "an untimely" assertion of the privilege.

At issue are about 1,300 pages of documents from February to December 2011 that detail the Department of Justice's communications following a DOJ letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that falsely claimed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made every effort to stop guns from going to Mexico after Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry's death was linked to guns from the ATF operation. In an effort to possibly find a cover-up within the administration, Issa is seeking documents on how DOJ reacted as the gun scandal unfolded between February and December 2011.

Holder claims the Justice Department has provided "extraordinary" access to documents and administration officials to answer questions about the incident.

Members on both sides of the aisle called the need for contempt proceedings "a sad day" for Congress and the American people, and Democrats repeatedly decried what they viewed as a "political witch-hunt" against President Obama during an election year.

House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman Brendan Buck suggested administration officials had lied earlier or were now "bending the law."

"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," Buck said.

But Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings said the committee's GOP chairman "had no interest" in resolving the issue and was trying to pick a fight.

Holder said the documents "were not generated in the course of the conduct of Fast and Furious. Instead they were created after the investigative tactics at issue in that operation had terminated and in the course of the Department's deliberative process concerning how to respond to congressional and related media inquiries into that operation."

During the committee's year-and-a-half-long investigation, the department has turned over 7,600 documents about the conduct of the Fast and Furious operation. However, because Justice initially told the committee falsely the operation did not use a risky investigative technique known as gun-walking, the panel has turned its attention from the details of the operation and is now seeking documents that would show how the department headquarters responded to the committee's investigation.

Officials say President Bill Clinton used executive privilege 14 times, while President George W. Bush invoked it six times.

ABC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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