The Obama administration will have to answer in court for its refusal to release thousands of documents to Congress over Operation Fast and Furious as early as today. CBS reports that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will file a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the House’s civil contempt citation. The effort has little precedent — mainly because this is as far as most conflicts over executive privilege go before one side blinks:
CBS News has learned that the House Oversight Committee expects to file a civil contempt suit against Attorney General Eric Holder Monday. The lawsuit is to try to force Holder to release documents from the Fast and Furious gunwalking operation.
The Republican-led House of Representative voted to hold Holder in contempt on June 28 for failing to turn over thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents. The Justice Department has said it is withholding documents under White House executive privilege.
Seventeen Democrats voted with 238 Republicans in the 255-67 vote for contempt. Democratic leaders called the contempt vote a “political witch hunt.”
In a past subpoena dispute between Congress and the executive branch, a federal judge ordered the executive branch to turn over the disputed documents. However, before the executive branch could pursue an appeal, the two sides reached a compromise and certain documents were turned over.
In past disputes, the issues didn’t meet the same level of damage that a court ruling on executive privilege might do to one branch or the other. Therefore, both sides had an incentive to step back from the brink before the courts had an opportunity to set a governing precedent.
This time, that may not be the case. First, OF&F’s gunrunning has left hundreds of murder victims in its wake, including two US government agents, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and ICE agent Jaime Zapata. It’s likely that the guns trafficked by the ATF in 2009 will claim more victims. Thus far, there is no indication that the Obama administration has done so much as demote anyone over the program. Administration officials lied to Congress about the nature of the program and their knowledge of it, which is the proximate cause for the contempt citation.
If Congress can’t access documents to investigate executive-branch malfeasance of this scope, especially with the added dollop of perjury and obstruction of justice vis-a-vis the House Oversight Committee, then Congress will have no real ability to conduct oversight of executive-branch activities at all. That plus the extremely shaky claim of executive privilege puts the Obama administration on course for a big loss, and a very large precedent on Congressional subpoenas that both parties will celebrate and have cause to regret in the future.
It would be more than a little ironic if a court had to impose the transparency that this administration likes to claim for itself, no?