The Republicans shamelessly turned what should be a routine matter into a pointless constitutional confrontation.
The political feud between the White House and Congressional Republicans has now culminated in a House oversight committee vote to cite Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. for criminal contempt. His supposed crime is failing to hand over some documents in an investigation of a botched gunrunning sting operation known as "Fast and Furious."
The Republicans shamelessly turned what should be a routine matter into a pointless constitutional confrontation. And the White House responded as most administrations do at some point: It invoked executive privilege to make a political problem go away.
While Holder has turned over more than 7,600 documents to the committee, he has withheld some subpoenaed documents. The committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has treated this refusal as a cover-up of wrongdoing by the Justice Department. Holder claims that surrendering some of the documents would jeopardize criminal investigations and the confidentiality of the department's decisionmaking process.
Under Operation Fast and Furious, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives let about 2,000 assault weapons slip across the border to Mexico so the guns could be tracked up the drug cartel ladder. The bureau kept ATF agents in Mexico in the dark while their superiors botched the surveillance. Some of the guns turned up in deadly shootouts, including one in which an American border agent was slain.
The House committee's contempt resolution focuses largely on internal Justice Department documents that relate to a Feb. 4, 2011, letter sent by the department to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. That letter falsely denied that the ATF had engaged in a gunrunning strategy that sent weapons across the border.
The department eventually retracted the letter in late 2011 and acknowledged that it was wrong. Holder said that department leaders inadvertently passed on bad information. Republican officials now want to see communications between Justice Department officials about the handling of that inquiry and whistleblower complaints.
On Wednesday, for the first time since he was elected, President Obama invoked executive privilege on the disputed documents. Doing so now bars prosecution of Holder in federal court should the full House vote to hold him in contempt.
Executive privilege cannot and should not be allowed to shield the executive branch from regular, valuable congressional oversight. There was no reason the House committee and the Justice Department could not work out a deal to produce the documents requested, or some form of them. Instead, they show again that every issue, large or small, can be turned into ammunition for political combat.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES
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