(The Root) — The House Oversight Committee voted on Wednesday, 23-17, to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress.
The measure will go to the full House for a vote next. If passed by the House, the matter would then move to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen Jr., who could potentially file a criminal contempt. The charge carries a punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
The House committee's resolution, passed on strictly partisan lines, was based on the probe into a gun operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), informally known as Fast and Furious. The operation was the last and largest in a series of "gun-walking" schemes that began in 2006 under the Bush administration.
Designed to track firearms in order to go after the "big fish," the tactic involved the ATF deliberately allowing guns to be purchased by suspected traffickers for Mexican drug cartels. Operation Fast and Furious put some 2,000 weapons on the street and in 2010 led to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Throughout the more than 15 months of the investigation, Holder has appeared before Congress nine times, submitted more than 7,600 pages of documents and made other Justice Department senior officials available for interviews, testimony and briefings.
But he has not turned over other documents that Issa requested, detailing how the Justice Department learned of problems with the operation, on the grounds that they contain confidential information about ongoing law-enforcement investigations.
On Wednesday, President Obama asserted executive privilege over these documents (an action that, contrary to what some critics have alleged, does not apply exclusively to presidential communications). In a letter to Obama on Tuesday, urging the president to exert executive privilege, Holder said that sharing documents containing information about in-progress cases with lawmakers "would have significant, damaging consequences." As CNN reports:
In particular, Issa's committee wants documents that show why the Department of Justice decided to withdraw as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to Congress that said top officials had only recently learned about Fast and Furious.
Holder said he offered to turn over some of the documents sought by Issa when they met Tuesday in a final effort to resolve the dispute before Wednesday's hearing. Issa, however, said Holder put unreasonable conditions on his offer.
In a letter to Issa after Tuesday's meeting, [Deputy Attorney General James] Cole reiterated Holder's position that the documents would show Holder had nothing to hide about his role in Fast and Furious.
Cole noted that the lone point of dispute was whether the February 4, 2011, letter was part of a broader effort to obstruct a congressional investigation.
"The answer to that question is an emphatic 'no' and we have offered the committee the opportunity to satisfy itself that that is so," Cole wrote.
Holder has claimed throughout that he did not authorize Fast and Furious, that he and other top officials had been unaware that the gun-walking tactic was being used in the operation and that he made personnel changes at both ATF and his office, as well as procedural changes within ATF, to make sure it never happens again.
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), maintained that Holder's refusal to turn over the additional documents is obstructing their investigation and, thus, rises to the level of criminal contempt.
Democrats charge that, instead of trying to get the information in question, Issa and other Republicans are pursuing contempt charges for political reasons.
"As we inch closer and closer to the 2012 election, congressional Republicans are trying to blemish the career of a respected public servant in an attempt to discredit the administration," said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) on Wednesday of Holder, who has also drawn letters of support from the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Bar Association. "Congress has never before held an attorney general in contempt, and this situation clearly does not meet the threshold for setting such a bold new precedent."
Issa stands by the contempt vote as a national imperative. "At the heart of the Congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious are disastrous consequences: a murdered Border Patrol Agent, his grieving family seeking answers, countless deaths in Mexico and the souring effect on our relationship with Mexico," he said in a statement. "Congress has not just a right, but an obligation to do all that it can to uncover exactly what happened and ensure that it never occurs again."
In his own statement, Holder wrote:
When Chairman Issa … began his own investigation, I made it clear that the Department would cooperate with all appropriate oversight requests, while still adhering to our legal obligations to protect information involving ongoing law enforcement investigations, legally protected grand jury material and other sensitive information whose disclosure would endanger the American people or our agents investigating open cases. The American people deserve better. That is why I will remain focused on, and committed to, the Justice Department's mission to protect the rights, safety, and best interests of my fellow citizens and to stand by my brave colleagues in law enforcement.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.