Justice Department officials on Wednesday said President Obama has asserted executive privilege over documents sought by a House committee in an investigation of the botched “Fast and Furious” operation.
The last-minute move came just prior to the start of a scheduled hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a contempt on Congress citation against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who has refused since October to honor a committee subpoena seeking the documents.
In a letter to Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, a Justice Department official said the privilege applies to documents that explain how the department learned there were problems with the investigation, which allowed more than 2,000 weapons to be “walked” to drug smugglers in Mexico.
A contempt vote against Mr. Holder became likely after he and Mr. Issa failed to reach an agreement over turning over the documents during a 20-minute meeting Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Mr. Holder did not turn over any records at the Tuesday meeting and later told reporters he would not turn over Fast and Furious documents unless Mr. Issa agreed to another meeting, where he said he would explain what is in the materials.
“I had hoped that after this evening’s meeting I would be able to tell you that the department had delivered documents that would justify the postponement of tomorrow’s vote on contempt,” Mr. Issa said. “The department told the committee on Thursday that it had documents it could produce that would answer our questions.
“The assertion of executive privilege raises monumental questions,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who first began the Fast and Furious investigation.
“How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he’s supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme? The contempt citation is an important procedural mechanism in our system of checks and balances,” he said.
“The questions from Congress go to determining what happened in a disastrous government program for accountability and so that it’s never repeated again.”