By Jordy Yager - 06/26/12 12:48 PM EDT
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Tuesday accused President Obama of either obstructing a congressional investigation or of involvement in the "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking operation.
In a seven-page letter to the president, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee leveled his most direct allegations yet at Obama just two days ahead of a full House vote on whether to place Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to respond to a subpoena.
“Either you or your most senior advisers were involved in managing Operation Fast and Furious and the fallout from it, including the false Feb. 4, 2011 letter provided by the attorney general to the committee,” Issa wrote to Obama. “Or, you are asserting a presidential power that you know to be unjustified solely for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz defended Obama’s assertion of executive privilege, saying that the move is legal and has long been supported by courts even if the president is not directly involved with the documents in question.
“Our position is consistent with executive-branch legal precedent for the past three decades spanning administrations of both parties, and dating back to President Reagan’s Department of Justice,” said Schultz in a statement.
“The courts have routinely considered deliberative process privilege claims and affirmed the right of the executive branch to invoke the privilege even when White House documents are not involved.”
Issa on Sunday acknowledged in an interview with Fox host Chris Wallace that he has no evidence that would suggest a White House cover-up of the gun-tracking operation.
The House has scheduled a vote on the contempt charge for Thursday, the same day the Supreme Court is scheduled to deliver its decision on Obama's healthcare law. That virtually ensures the Holder vote will get less media attention, something that might be fine with many Republicans who want to focus the political debate on the economy. Conservatives within the GOP have been pressing for the action against Holder.
Many of the documents that Issa has narrowly focused his request on center on the period of time after Feb. 4, 2011, when the Justice Department sent Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) a false letter claiming it did everything in its power not to let guns “walk” across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ten months later the DOJ took the rare step of withdrawing that letter. Issa wants to know what agency officials learned in those months and how that decision was reached by reading their internal emails.
The chairman said on Tuesday that Obama’s use of executive privilege implicates him in the decisionmaking process and that he hopes the president will more clearly define his assertion. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) raised similar questions almost immediately following Obama’s move last week.
“I am hopeful that, consistent with assertions of executive privilege by previous administrations, you will define the universe of documents over which you asserted executive privilege and provide the committee with the legal justification from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC),” wrote Issa.
“To what extent were you or your most senior advisers involved in Operation Fast and Furious and the fallout from it, including the false Feb. 4, 2011, letter provided by the attorney general to the committee?” he continued.
“Please also identify any communications, meetings and teleconferences between the White House and the Justice Department between Feb. 4, 2011, and June 18, 2012, the day before the attorney general requested that you assert executive privilege.”
Issa has been investigating Fast and Furious for the past 16 months, after whistleblowers brought news of the failed operation to the attention of Grassley, whose attempts at retrieving more information from the DOJ were unsuccessful.
After issuing two subpoenas and interviewing dozens of witnesses, Issa says that the DOJ has stopped producing documents to the committee. He says his panel has about 7,600 documents, whereas the DOJ’s inspector general, which Holder ordered last year to complete its own investigation, has more than 80,000 documents.
This story was updated at 9:37 a.m.