Obama Asserts Executive Privilege on Gun Probe Documents

The Obama administration told a U.S. House panel that the president is asserting executive privilege and refusing to turn over documents sought by lawmakers related to a U.S. law enforcement gun operation.

The Justice Department described President Barack Obama’s position in a letter today to Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The panel is scheduled to vote today over whether Attorney General Eric Holder should be held in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents sought by Issa’s panel.

Issa, as the committee meeting began, said Obama’s move was an “untimely assertion” that “falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings.” Issa said the committee was proceeding with the contempt vote because Obama hadn’t invoked executive privilege in a formal communication with the House.

The committee action would be the latest escalation in a standoff that began last year between Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration over Fast and Furious, a law enforcement operation that allowed illegal gun purchases in the U.S. an an effort to link the weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Guns in the program ended up “lost” and will turn up at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for years, Holder told lawmakers last year.

Executive Privilege

Executive privilege is a principle that says the executive branch can’t be forced by the legislative branch to disclose confidential communications when they would harm operations.

Documents responsive to the House panel’s subpoena relate to “sensitive law enforcement activities, including ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole in the letter to Issa.

In a letter to the president released by the White House, Holder argued that giving up the documents sought by the panel “would inhibit the candor” of deliberations within the executive branch. He said documents “were generated in the course of the deliberative process” and as a result “the need to maintain their confidentiality is heightened.”

The Justice Department says it already has provided more than 7,600 pages of documents in the case. Issa is seeking additional material.

This is the first time Obama has invoked executive privilege, according to the White House.

Earlier Cases

Former President George W. Bush invoked executive privilege six times during his presidency, according to a White House statement.

Bush asserted executive privilege to block release of documents and testimony under oath by then White House counsel Harriet Miers and other top aides on the administration’s firing in 2006 of nine federal prosecutors. Under a deal later brokered by the Obama administration, the aides, including Bush political adviser Karl Rove, gave testimony in private.

After learning of the tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious, Holder asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into the matter. That probe continues. The department expects that report will help officials “understand how these mistakes occurred and to ensure that they do not occur again,” Cole said in the letter.

Republican Response

Republicans said that Obama’s assertion of executive privilege raised questions about the extent of what he knew about Fast and Furious.

“Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, in a statement.

Two of about 2,000 guns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed to be carried away were found at the scene of the December 2010 murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona, according to a congressional report.

Holder has said he didn’t learn of the tactics in the operation until after it was the subject of news reports.

Holder last year told a Senate hearing that he regretted a Feb. 4, 2011 letter the Justice Department sent lawmakers that indicated the ATF hadn’t “knowingly allowed” the tactics in the law enforcement operation to be employed. Information in the letter turn out to be inaccurate, he said.

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