WASHINGTON — A congressional committee voted Wednesday to recommend that Attorney General Eric Holder be held in contempt after the Obama administration, citing executive privilege for the first time, refused to turn over documents pertaining to a botched gun-trafficking operation.
The party-line vote at a marathon session of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee intensified a feud between the Obama administration and Republican lawmakers and dealt an embarrassing blow to the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement official.
House leaders said they will schedule a vote of the entire chamber on the matter next week unless the attorney general turns over certain documents on Operation Fast and Furious. If the full House votes to find Holder in contempt, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia — who is employed by the Justice Department — will have to decide whether to criminally prosecute him.
Holder called the vote “an extraordinary, unprecedented and entirely unnecessary action, intended to provoke an avoidable conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch.”
“It’s an election-year tactic intended to distract attention — and, as a result — has deflected critical resources from fulfilling what remains my top priority at the Department of Justice: protecting the American people,” he said.
The vote against Holder marks only the third time in 30 years that a congressional panel has held an attorney general in contempt. At Wednesday’s often-heated hearing, Republicans railed against the former judge and U.S. attorney, accusing him of repeatedly stonewalling them in their investigation. Democrats blasted the GOP for allowing the dispute to devolve into personal attacks against Holder.
At its core, the conflict centers on a particular set of documents that the oversight committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaed from the Justice Department in October for the investigation he launched into Operation Fast and Furious in the spring of last year.
The operation, named after the popular movie series, was run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and 2011, with the legal backing of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. As part of the operation, ATF agents purposefully did not interdict more than 2,000 guns they suspected of being purchased at Arizona gun shops by illegal buyers known as “straw purchasers”; agents hoped to later track them to a Mexican drug cartel.
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 operation were found at a scene in the Arizona desert where a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed in December 2010.
While lawmakers have already conducted an investigation of the operation, they are seeking to determine who in the Justice Department knew about the tactics used in Fast and Furious and when. They are also trying to find out whether any officials tried to cover up their knowledge of the tactics once Congress began investigating.
Last year, a Justice Department official told lawmakers in a letter that ATF had not ever “sanctioned” or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico. Ten months later, the Justice Department withdrew the letter, acknowledging the botched operation.
That episode has heightened suspicions among Republican lawmakers, who have demanded that the department hand over the records of any deliberations it had about Fast and Furious after the Feb. 4, 2011, letter.
Justice officials have insisted that no senior officials in the department knew of the controversial tactics, which were approved by ATF’s Phoenix division. They also have said they have worked hard to cooperate with requests from Issa’s committee. Over the past year, Justice officials have turned over 7,600 documents relating to the operation, as well as documents relating to another operation involving “gun-walking,” as the tactic is known, in the George W. Bush administration.
Holder has testified to congressional committees about Fast and Furious nine times over the past 14 months.
But Issa and his investigators said the Justice Department was not fully cooperating with their request, arguing that the records turned over were only a sliver of the 80,000 documents that Justice has given to the department’s inspector general, who is also investigating the gun operation at Holder’s request.
In recent weeks, Issa has narrowed his request to documents relating to “internal deliberations” over the operation. Justice officials have insisted that they do not have to hand over those files based on long-standing executive branch policy. They have also said that many of the documents delivered to the inspector general pertain to ongoing criminal investigations and legally cannot be released to Congress.
In a bid to head off a contempt vote, Holder met with Issa and several other lawmakers Tuesday evening. The attorney general agreed to turn over documents that Justice officials think would answer Issa’s questions if the committee would consider the subpoena issues related to Fast and Furious to be “resolved.” He told reporters afterward that the set of documents “pretty clearly demonstrates that there was no intention to mislead, to deceive.”
Issa declined the offer, however, saying he would not make such a determination until he saw the documents.
On Wednesday morning, just minutes before the scheduled hearing, committee staff members said they were informed by the Justice Department that Obama was invoking executive privilege to withhold the contested documents. After a six-hour hearing, the panel voted 23-17 to hold the attorney general in contempt.
“Fast and Furious was a reckless operation that led to the death of an American border agent, and the American people deserve to know the facts to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a statement after the vote.
House Democrats quickly denounced their plans to bring a vote to the floor next week.
“If Mr. Boehner takes this to the House, he will be seen as one of the most extreme speakers that ever took charge of the House,” said the oversight committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
He noted that in the Clinton administration, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., declined to bring to the House floor a vote on contempt charges against Attorney General Janet Reno.
“Instead of going after guns, the Republican majority is going after the attorney general of the United States,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “This is a political witch hunt during the witch hunt season, and the witch hunt season will probably not end until Election Day.”