U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said he had no evidence that the White House was involved in what he called “a cover-up” of Justice Department actions related to a failed gun-trafficking operation known as “Fast and Furious.”
Appearing on several Sunday talk shows, he blamed the department and Attorney General Eric Holder for the current stalemate between his panel and the Obama administration. Holder has defied a subpoena for documents sought by Issa’s committee, which is investigating the operation.
“It was deny, delay and recuse,” Issa, a California Republican, said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program.
On June 20 President Barack Obama involved executive privilege to shield the documents, an action that House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said amounted to “an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and covered up the truth.”
Asked on “Fox News Sunday” about Boehner’s statement, Issa said his committee had no evidence to support assertions of White House involvement.
“And I hope they don’t get involved,” he said. “I hope this stays at Justice. And I hope that Justice cooperates, because ultimately, Justice lied to the American people on Feb. 4 and didn’t make it right for 10 months.”
Operation Fast and Furious allowed illegally purchased guns from the U.S. to be smuggled across the border to Mexican drug cartels, theoretically enabling law enforcement to track the weapons and amass enough evidence to destroy the gangs.
Many of the 2,000 weapons were “lost,” Holder told lawmakers last year. Two were found in December 2010 at the scene of the murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona, according to a congressional report.
Democrats are accusing House Republicans of engaging in an election-year “fishing expedition” with their probe.
Hours after Obama asserted executive privilege, the committee, in a party-line vote, recommended that Holder be held in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with the subpoena. House Republican leaders set a vote by the full House on the contempt citation for this week, setting up a potential referral of the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington to determine whether prosecution is warranted.
Issa said on ABC that he was going to send a letter to Obama yesterday or today detailing why lawmakers say the president is taking an overly broad approach to executive privilege. If the administration changes course and releases the documents, “we’ll delay contempt and continue the process,” he said.
The principle of executive privilege says the executive branch can’t be forced by the legislative branch to disclose confidential communications when they would harm operations. This is the first time Obama has invoked executive privilege, according to the White House.
Issa’s committee is seeking documents describing internal Justice Department discussions about a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to lawmakers that Holder later said mistakenly contained incorrect information.
The attorney general told a Senate hearing last year that he regretted the letter, which indicated that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hadn’t “knowingly allowed” the tactics in the law enforcement operation to be employed. Information in that letter turned out to be inaccurate, he said.
Issa said yesterday that his panel is particularly concerned about a Justice Department memo generated weeks later that may have shown agency officials were aware at that time that Congress had been given false information. The panel seeks the memo, drafted by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, as part of the probe.
“How can you presume that it is or isn’t a cover-up of something wrong, when in fact there clearly is a cover-up of some information that should have been shown to us?” he said on “This Week.”
The Justice Department says it already has provided more than 7,600 pages of documents in the case.
In a June 20 statement, Holder called the contempt citation “unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented.” Yesterday, on “Fox News Sunday,” Issa said he expects that if the vote is held, the contempt citation will win House approval in a bipartisan vote.
“Both Republicans and Democrats will vote for that,” he said, adding that more than 30 House Democrats had earlier sent a letter to the Obama administration requesting more disclosure,
Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on Issa’s committee, said on the same program that House Republicans are wrong to pursue the contempt citation against Holder, in part because there isn’t evidence the attorney general knew at the time that any incorrect information may have been relayed to Congress.
“I think it’s extremely unfortunate, and I absolutely don’t think we needed to be at this place,” Cummings said.
Dozens of Republican lawmakers have called on Holder to resign over his handling of probes into the gun operation and leaks of classified national security information. Republicans have also criticized how the Justice Department under Holder has prosecuted terrorism suspects and challenged state immigration and voting laws.