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Obama Asserts Executive Privilege in Bid to Forestall AG Holder's Contempt Vote

- Common Dreams staff

President Barack Obama stepped into the drama of the high-profile showdown over "Fast and Furious" Wednesday morning, granting Attorney General Eric Holder executive privilege.

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress. (AP/Susan Walsh) Obama's executive privilege grant overrides Issa's subpoena for documents related to the House investigation of the Mexican gun sting operation. According to the White House this is the first time Obama has used executive privilege.

But the move looks unlikely to stop a contempt vote scheduled for later Wednesday, the Washington Post reports. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) responded to Obama's decision by saying that it “falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings.”

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The Washington Post reports:

President Obama asserted executive privilege over documents related to the “Fast and Furious” operation Wednesday as a House panel moved to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt for failing to cooperate with a related congressional inquiry.

The president’s decision and the House panel’s anticipated contempt citation quickly intensified a long-simmering feud between the White House and Republican lawmakers and set up a clash between over the extent of presidential power that may take months to resolve.

Sharing the documents “would raise substantial separation of powers concerns and potentially create an imbalance in the relationship” between Congress and the White House, Holder wrote in a letter to Obama delivered late Tuesday.

Releasing the documents “would inhibit 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 added.

In response, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who led Wednesday’s hearing to review the contempt charges, said he learned of Obama’s decision early Wednesday and believes the move “falls short of any reason to delay today’s proceedings.”

If the House committee cites Holder for criminal contempt, it would open a process that would require House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to schedule a floor vote. If passed by the full House, the matter would then move to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen Jr., who is an employee of the Justice Department.

Holding an Executive Branch official in criminal contempt is rare, having occurred roughly a dozen times in the last 40 years. Usually, administration officials have cited executive privilege in refusing to share information, but eventually turn over requested documents before congressional committees reach the final stages of contempt proceedings, according to the Congressional Research Service. [...]

Operation Fast and Furious was run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011, with the backing of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. Federal agents targeting the Mexico-based Sinaloa drug cartel did not interdict more than 2,000 guns they suspected of being bought illegally, in the hope of later tracking them to the cartel. The ATF lost track of most of the firearms, some of which have been found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States.

Two of the guns connected to the botched operation were found at the Arizona site where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010.

As part of a congressional inquiry and a subpoena issued last year, Justice officials have given Issa’s committee 7,600 pages of Fast and Furious documents, but he has said that they represent a sliver of the 80,000-plus documents that officials have turned over to the DOJ inspector general, which is also investigating the gun operation.

In recent weeks, Issa narrowed his request to the internal Justice deliberations since early February 2011, when Grassley first began asking Justice about Fast and Furious. On Feb. 4, 2011, the Justice Department sent the committee a letter denying use of the “gunwalking” tactics used in Fast and Furious. Officials were later forced to retract the letter after whistleblowers came forward and said they had used those very tactics.

Issa also has asked Justice for all documents related to the treatment of the whistleblowers.

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