Fast & Furious - White House holds files

2012-06-20 22:56
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Washington - President Barack Obama took the rare move on Wednesday of not turning over documents for an investigation into a botched US gun-smuggling probe that Republicans have used to attack his administration as the November election approaches.

The decision came as a House of Representatives committee was poised to vote on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over more Justice Department files.

The committee wants documents that explain how the department learned of problems with the Operation Fast and Furious probe. But Obama decided to withhold them.

"The president has asserted executive privilege," Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter to committee chair Rep Darrell Issa.

It was the first time Obama had invoked the privilege.

As the committee's hearing began, Issa called the president's action "an untimely" assertion of the privilege, which the White House says presidents have asserted just 25 times since 1980.

House Speaker John Boehner quickly questioned whether Obama's move means the White House, and not just the Justice Department, was involved in decisions over Fast and Furious.

"The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?" said Boehner's press secretary Brendan Buck.

In Fast and Furious, federal agents from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. 

Lost track

Instead, the goal was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers, who had long eluded prosecution, and to dismantle their networks.

Such so-called gun-walking has long been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W Bush administration.

The agents in Fast and Furious lost track of many of the weapons. Two of the guns were found at the scene of the slaying of US border agent Brian Terry.

The House committee has turned its attention from the details of the operation and is now seeking documents that would show how the department headquarters responded to the committee's investigation.

"If we receive no documents, we'll go forward" with a contempt vote, Issa told reporters.

What a contempt vote would mean is not clear for Holder, who would not be prosecuted. The vote is a way Congress can try to force a witness to testify.

If the committee votes to recommend that Holder be held in contempt of Congress, its recommendation would go next to the full House for a vote. Historically, at some point Congress and president negotiate agreements because both sides want to avoid a court battle that could narrow either the reach of executive privilege or Congress' subpoena power.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  us

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