Top Obama aide Holder held in contempt

2012-06-29 10:00

Washington - US lawmakers on Thursday took the historic, controversial step of holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, sharpening the election-year discord between the Obama administration and its Republican foes in Congress.

About 100 furious Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi, the party's top member in the House of Representatives, stormed out of the chamber at the start of the vote, called because Holder has withheld documents related to a botched gun-tracking operation.

They were protesting what they described as highly partisan action to railroad the contempt vote through the House - discrediting both Holder and President Barack Obama ahead of the November elections.

The resolution was adopted 255-67 in the Republican-led House. Several dozen Democrats refused to participate, while 17 in Obama's party voted to find the nation's top justice official in criminal contempt.

The move paves the way for legal action over a probe into the gun-tracking Operation Fast and Furious, and Holder's failure to turn over internal Justice Department documents and e-mails sought through subpoena by a congressional panel conducting the investigation.

The House also passed a civil contempt resolution, which would authorise the panel to sue the Justice Department in federal court over the documents.

Missing guns

The contempt finding, the first for a sitting member of a president's cabinet, was immediately branded by the White House as a "transparently political stunt".

"Republicans pushed for political theatre rather than legitimate congressional oversight," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, a politically-motivated agenda prevailed" that served as partisan brinkmanship "instead of engaging with the president in efforts to create jobs and grow the economy," he said.

Launched in Arizona by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Fast and Furious was a sting operation designed to track weapons purchased by straw buyers and smuggled to Mexican drug cartels.

But many of the guns went missing, and two were later found at the murder scene of a US border patrol agent.

Republican Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Oversight Committee which led the investigation, is seeking to discover who in the government knew about the operation and when, and whether there was a cover-up.

'Terrible day'

Holder called the censure "unnecessary and unwarranted" and defended his role at the helm of the Justice Department, saying he put in place new safeguards to prevent future gun-running - which began during the George W Bush administration - and "took extraordinary steps to facilitate robust congressional oversight".

"Today's vote is the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided and politically motivated investigation during an election year," he said after the censure.

Pelosi and her colleagues, many from the Congressional Black Caucus, walked out of the House in solidarity with Holder, the nation's first African-American attorney general.

"We are nonparticipants in what we believe to be a calamity," congressman Emanuel Cleaver said outside the Capitol.

"This is a terrible day for the House of Representatives."

But Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who helped bring the scandal to light in 2010 when whistleblowers told him about troubles with Fast and Furious, said the move was a pursuit of vital legal action to overcome department stonewalling.

Election link

"When a person dies in service to his country, and his own government may have contributed to his death, covered up evidence about the circumstances, or both, the survivors' families and the American people have a right to know the truth," Grassley said.

Some Republicans did not hesitate to tie the House move to the upcoming election.

Republican National Committee chairperson Reince Priebus, seizing on the fact some Democrats voted for censure, described it as a "bipartisan rebuke of an administration refusing to be honest with the American people".

Obama and the White House, Priebus said, "have failed to live up to their promises of openness and transparency, and voters will surely hold them accountable in November".

Holder has testified about the scandal nine times and turned over 7 600 documents, but Issa says that is less than 10% of what was being sought.

Issa is after material that shows why Holder's department retracted as inaccurate a February 2011 letter to lawmakers that said senior officials were unaware of Fast and Furious - and why the retraction took 10 months.

Obama last week asserted executive privilege over documents containing internal deliberations related to the probe.