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Claiming executive privilege may pull President Obama into Fast and Furious gunwalking probe

Published: Wednesday, June 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., considers whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

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House committee holds AG Holder in contempt for failing to turn over Justice documents

Background: Congress investigates U.S. policy that purposely put guns in hands of Mexican drug cartels

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President Barack Obama exerted executive privilege in the Fast and Furious gunrunning probe, giving Attorney General Eric Holder some breathing room, but perhaps pulling himself into the controversy at the same time.

According to an Oversight and Government Reform Committee report, Fast and Furious began in 2009 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began allows strawpurchasers to buy guns in the U.S. and transfer them across the border. The goal of the project was purportedly to identify members of trafficking networks and trace smuggling routes in and out of Mexico.

However, when the December 2010 death of Brian Terry, a member of a special tactical border squad, was connected with guns traced back to Fast and Furious, whistleblowers began to come forward with details about the nearly 2,000 guns that were allowed to cross into Mexico untracked.

Since then, Congressional committees have held a number of hearings with Attorney General Eric Holder, seeking more details about the program.

The executive privilege action is Obama's first since taking office, and came in response to a letter sent by Holder. The letter stated that the president could properly assert executive privilege in the current situation and requested that he do so. The action was taken minutes before Holder's contempt hearing on Capitol Hill was due to begin.

"I write now to inform you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the relevant post-February 4, 2011, documents," Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee's concerns and to accommodate the Committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious."

Executive privilege allows Obama to withhold documents revealing internal communications and decision-making of the executive branch from Congress if the president believes they should remain confidential. A Congressional subpoena cannot override the claim, but the privilege can be challenged and overturned in courts.

Members of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee are seeking documents regarding the operation, including details about what government officials knew about the program and when they knew about it. Specifically, committee members want documents showing why the Department of Justice withdrew its inaccurate February 2011 letter saying top officials at the DOJ had only recently learned about Fast and Furious.

In a June 5 letter, Issa revealed that six 2010 wiretap applications from Fast and Furious give immense detail about the tactics used in the operation, and that the applications included a memorandum from Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer authorizing the wiretap applications on behalf of the attorney general.

On Feb. 2, 2012, Holder testified before Congress that "there is no indication that Mr. Breuer or my former deputy were aware of the tactics that were employed in this matter until everybody I think became aware of them, which is like January or February of last year. The information — I am not at this point aware that any of those tactics were contained in any of the wiretap applications."

"We now know that all of these statements are not accurate," Issa said in a letter to Holder. "Having seen the wiretap applications, we now know that the information coming from the department has been misleading. That must stop."

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