U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder under fire for contempt
HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 6/28/2012, 1:51 p.m.
Still smarting from setbacks a week ago, the Obama administration received another withering blow from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday when it voted 23 to 17 to favorably report a contempt resolution against Attorney General Eric Holder.
Holder was cited with contempt of Congress over statements made regarding Operation Fast and Furious, in which agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, rather than confiscating illegally purchased weapons, chose to track the weapons to the traffickers with the purpose of dismantling their networks.
The experiment went awry when agents lost track of the weapons and one of them apparently was used in the slaying of U.S. Border Agent Brian Terry.
Basically, Holder was cited with contempt for failing to turn over documents requested by the committee, though during the year-and-a-half investigation, the Justice Department reportedly submitted 7,600 documents, including details of Operation Fast and Furious.
However, the furor arose because the department at first denied the botched experiment of "gun walking," tracking the illicit movement of the weapons, and this triggered a further investigation by the committee.
On the heels of the committee's vote, President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege to withhold the documents the committee is seeking, documents that are generally off-limits to Congress.
"The president has asserted executive privilege," wrote Deputy Attorney General James Cole in a letter to Rep. Darrell lssa (R-Calif.).
"We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee's concerns and to accommodate the committee's legitimate oversight interests."
lssa, chair of the committee, said Obama's action was "an untimely" assertion of privilege.
On Tuesday, Holder and Issa met for 20 minutes without reaching any kind of resolution on the dispute. Holder insisted that he would not turn over documents related to the gun smuggling probe unless Issa consented to another congressional briefing on the department's material. He wanted some guarantee that the transfer of records would be enough to stand down the subpoena.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), appearing Wednesday evening on PBS' "Newshour" in a debate with Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), both of whom sit on the committee, took strong exception to the contempt charge.
"I think we have to look at the totality of the Constitution here," he asserted. "Congress has a right to compel the production of papers and to compel witnesses before the committee. That's an Article I right. At the same time, the administration, Article II, has the right under the Constitution to say, look, we're invoking executive privilege--that doesn't mean just the president, the executive branch privilege -- and say, we're not going to produce that for our own reasons.
"Now, the next step then would be to go to the court, and I would hope that, if we cannot resolve this, that the one concession that would be made is that we not pursue by resolution a criminal matter. We can pursue a civil matter, have a court make a decision, saying, 'OK, produce the documents,' and then we come back to the court enforcing a resolution of Congress."
The next move in this confrontation may be in the full House for a vote, though such an action is rare but could force further negotiations.
Many Democrats agree with Nancy Pelosi, the House minority speaker, who views the entire charade as nothing more than a continuing assertion of the GOP's aim to suppress votes in the upcoming elections. She told the press that the charges against Holder were a "shameful display of an abuse of power."
"These very same people who are holding him in contempt are part of a nationwide scheme to suppress the vote" that also involves big donors who are anonymously contributing large sums of money to GOP candidates and causes, Pelosi said.
It boils down to a kind of red herring on part of the GOP. While they complain about Operation Fast and Furious, the real issue appears to be to hinder the Justice Department from ensuring the franchise is available for all Americans.