This morning, Americans expected a House committee to debate and vote whether to hold the Attorney General in contempt of Congress. Holder refused yet again to turn over documents about Operation Fast and Furious. But then the putative President, Barack H. Obama, claimed executive privilege and locked up those documents. That provoked a Tea Party activist to accuse Obama of treason.
Contempt of Congress
Last week, Chairman Darrell Issa of the House Oversight Committee warned Attorney General Eric Holder that his committee was about to hold him in contempt of Congress.
No, Mr. Attorney General. You are not a good witness. A good witness answers the questions asked of him. Now I ask you again…
The above was just a sample of what Issa and his colleagues gave Holder, the last time he sat before them.
So on Monday, Holder made a last-minute offer. He would meet Issa in private and go over what documents he had about Operation Fast and Furious, and why any of them were too sensitive for Holder to hand over.
Holder and Issa did meet yesterday afternoon at 5:00. Issa came away angry and adamant about holding a hearing, or “markup,” about Holder and his attitude. He told reporters that Holder had offered him nothing but empty promises. Worse, he demanded that Issa not ask for any more documents after the so-called “briefing.” In holding his “markup,” Issa faithfully followed this “user’s manual on contempt of Congress.”
The “markup” began at 10:00 a.m. today. And then the putative President said something that changed everything.
Eric Holder, Attorney General. Photo: US Department of Justice
Before today, Holder always said that the papers Issa wanted would breach “deliberative privilege.” That is close to the traditional professional-client privilege, that protects all that passes between a professional (like a lawyer or a doctor) and his client. In this case, Holder was saying that the papers touched on sensitive things that passed between him and his own advisers.
But today Barack Obama said that the papers broke executive privilege. According to CNN, that claim came in a letter from Deputy Attorney General James Cole to the committee. (See also this report in The Washington Post. Note the headline: the Post, for the first time, called Fast and Furious a “scandal.”)
Executive privilege protects certain matters that pass between the President and his advisers. It applies when those matters involve protecting the United States against invasion, infiltration, or other such danger.
That claim hit official Washington like a thunder-clap. The reason: Obama has never admitted that he knew anything about Fast and Furious until he started reading about it in the newspapers. But Issa wants documents of things that happened before the mainstream media started to cover Fast and Furious.
Fast and Furious background
Operation Fast and Furious grew out of Project Gunrunner. In it, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) ordered gun dealers to let known gangsters buy guns for the gang, and not report them through the usual channels. ATF’s field office in Phoenix, AZ, told those dealers that they would trace those guns to the gangsters, and Mexican authorities would arrest the gangsters, and get the guns back, in Mexico. This did not happen. Then on December 10, 2010, Border Control Agent Brian Terry died in the line of duty. Authorities recovered two or three guns at the scene that were part of Fast and Furious.
In February of 2011, AG Holder said that ATF had never sat and watched gangsters buy guns in this country and carry them back to Mexico. But later in the year, Holder had to take that back.
(Today, Holder had to take something else back. Last week he petulantly told Issa’s committee that the Bush administration had let guns “walk,” too, in Operation Wide Receiver. A receiver is the main body of any gun, that one attaches the stock, barrel, scope, and other moving parts to; hence the name. Today Holder sheepishly admitted that Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious were not the same, or even remotely similar.)
Darrell Issa took over as Chairman of Oversight and Reform in January of 2011. He started investigating Fast and Furious almost at once.
Today, at about 4:30 p.m., the committee took its vote. By an almost party-line vote of 23 to 17, with no member abstaining, the House Oversight Committee cited Holder for contempt of Congress. Issa will refer this matter to the full House of Representatives.
Angry and bewildered
Nick Purpura is still challenging Obama’s place on election ballots in New Jersey. Today he flatly accused Obama of treason.
Are you kidding me? This is the Reichstag all over again!
You can’t use executive privilege in a criminal investigation! He is hindering a Congressional investigation, and he is hindering a criminal investigation. If he gets away with this, Congress might as well crown him king and go home!
Purpura called on Obama to resign at once, saying that Obama abused executive privilege. Purpura also called on Rep. John Boehner (R-OH-8), the Speaker of the House, to resign also. The reason: Boehner, yesterday, had forced Issa to demand less than he wanted even before the 5:00 p.m. meeting. (In that light, Holder is even less able to explain why he refused to hand over anything.) Boehner had earlier tried to order Issa to stop investigating Fast and Furious. He relented only after some “whistleblowers” from inside ATF hinted that Holder not only knew about Fast and Furious but even ordered ATF-Phoenix to do what they did. Purpura believes that someone, perhaps Holder, or perhaps someone in the Obama campaign, is blackmailing Boehner.
RoseAnn Salanitri, head of the New Jersey Tea Party Caucus, also said that Obama could not use executive privilege.
Executive privilege is appropriate for protecting the United States. It is not appropriate for protecting an administration.
The Fox News Channel covered the “markup,” the executive privilege letter, and reaction to it, all day. Several commentators mentioned earlier Presidents who claimed executive privilege. George Washington claimed it once. But the most infamous claims of executive privilege came from Richard M. Nixon. Today, the Watergate spectacle seemed to play out as it did forty years ago—except that the Republican and Democratic parties now have reversed their roles of prosecutor and defendant.
Related Fast and Furious articles:
A Journalist’s Guide to Project Gunwalker, Part Ten. Has links to nine earlier sets of updates.