President Barack Obama, after years of fighting to hide Operation Fast and Furious documents, finally relented and officially dropped his claim to executive privilege over them.
“Four years after asserting executive privilege to block Congress from obtaining documents relating to a controversial federal gun trafficking investigation, President Barack Obama relented Friday, turning over to lawmakers thousands of pages of records that led to unusual House votes holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in 2012,” Politico’s Josh Gerstein wrote on Friday.
Fast and Furious remains the only scandal over which this president has used executive privilege power to hide documents from congressional investigators. Obama did not use the highly controversial power in any other scandal, including the following: Benghazi, IRS, Department of Justice phone-tapping, Pigford, General Services Administration (GSA), Solyndra, LightSquared, or EPA administrator email aliases.
In the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, the Obama administration let guns “walk”–or be trafficked without surveillance or any plan to regain control of them–into the hands of Mexican drug cartel criminals. As many as 2,000 high-powered rifles walked into Mexico as part of the scheme, and they were used to kill many Mexican citizens and even U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Now, after House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) investigators have been litigating for years after Obama’s now former Attorney General Eric Holder was held in both criminal and civil contempt of Congress, the president has dropped his executive privilege claim over the documents. The civil contempt of Congress resolution sparked this lawsuit against the administration while the criminal contempt resolution would have led to charges against Holder, but the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia declined to press forward with prosecution. Holder has since resigned at Attorney General. Several other administration officials resigned over this scandal.
In January, a federal district court judge rejected Obama’s executive privilege claim over records detailing the Justice Department and White House’s response to Operation Fast and Furious, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation that may have allowed as many as 2,000 firearms to pass into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson did not turn down Obama’s privilege assertion on the merits. Instead, she said authorized public disclosures about the operation in a Justice Department inspector general report essentially mooted the administration’s drive to keep the records secret. Both sides had until midnight Friday to file an appeal. Instead, the Obama administration turned over a set of documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Justice Department believes they won because the judge limited the scope of documents that the president has to turn over. Patrick Rodenbush, a DOJ spokesman, said:
The Department of Justice is pleased that the district court … continued to recognize that the deliberative process component of the executive privilege exists and was a valid basis for the Department to withhold certain documents when requested by the House in 2011. Although the Department disagrees with the district court’s conclusion that the privilege was overcome in this particular case by disclosures and statements made in other contexts, the Department has decided not to appeal the court’s judgment and has provided a production of documents to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The president’s decision to back down and agree to release the documents Judge Berman said to release apparently caught even OGR chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) by surprise, as the House team had filed an appeal in response to an expected filing of such an appeal from the White House.
“As we’ve long asserted, the Committee requires and is entitled to these documents,” Chaffetz said in a statement. “They are critical to the Committee’s efforts to complete meaningful oversight. The Committee has a duty to understand and shine light on what was happening inside DOJ during the time of this irresponsible operation. Yet DOJ has obstructed our investigative work for years.”
Chaffetz did however say, after hearing that the administration was not going to fight the judge’s order to release some documents, that it will press on with its appeal moving forward to get all of the documents.
“Today, under court order, DOJ turned over some of the subpoenaed documents. The Committee, however, is entitled to the full range of documents for which it brought this lawsuit. Accordingly, we have appealed the District Court’s ruling in order to secure those additional documents,” Chaffetz said.
It remains to be seen what will happen as Republicans fight for the release of all the Operation Fast and Furious documents rather than just some.