On June 7 Attorney General Eric Holder told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee: “We’ve looked at 240 custodians, processed millions of electronic records and reviewed over 140,000 documents and produced to you about 7,600.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) shot back: “So, 140,000 documents. How many documents are responsive but you are withholding at this time?”
This isn’t election-year hyperbole. Rep. Issa and Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) have been trying to drag documents out of the Justice Department, interviewing whistleblowers and more for about 18 months now. In fact, Rep. Issa brought up executive privilege last December when Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee.
At the time, Issa asked, “Don’t you think it is a little conspicuous that there is not one email from or to you on Fast and Furious? ... Isn’t it true that executive privilege does not include you?”
Holder answered, “We have not withheld any documents that are responsive. We have withheld information about ongoing investigations.”
Issa shot back, “That’s how John Mitchell responded.” (John Mitchell was attorney general under President Richard Nixon. Mitchell had been found guilty of charges related to the Watergate break-in. He was sentenced to 19 months in prison.)
Holder turned to Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and said, “The reference to John Mitchell, let’s think about that. At some point, you know as they said at the McCarthy hearings….” He then he looked back at Issa and said, “Have you no shame?”
Issa lashed back, “Have you no shame?”
That’s the tone surrounding the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. That’s how heated the congressional investigation has been. Now 18 months after Special Agent Brian Terry was killed with an AK-47 that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) purposely let “walk” into Mexico, President Barack Obama has used executive privilege to shield documents related to the gunrunning program.
This use of executive privilege has forced even mainstream news outlets to stop mostly ignoring this scandal. It must have been hard for so many reporters to lay off this one; after all, this story deals with thousands of missing guns, the deaths of two American law-enforcement officers, corruption, obvious cover-ups, and, according to the Attorney General of Mexico, Marisela Morales, has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans. Yeah, some journalists have a lot of catching up to do.
Now, when this scandal is compared to Watergate—as all presidential scandals seem to be—many say, “No one died in Watergate.” Quite right. No one did, making this one much more serious. But the reason this is similar to Watergate is that we also have missing documents and the use of a president’s executive privilege.
Specifically, congressional investigators want Holder’s emails. They want the ones that mention Operation Fast and Furious. To date he hasn’t given even one. This is why Rep. Issa asked, “Don’t you think it is a little conspicuous that there is not one email from or to you on Fast and Furious?” It’s why, in fact, that after Issa’s five minutes questioning the Attorney General were up last December, Holder’s emails were still the focus of the Republican member’s attention. A short while later Holder was asked if he authorized the Inspector General investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. He said, “I was in fact the person who asked the IG to investigate, but I didn’t put anything in writing. I have a good relationship with the IG. I don’t think there’s any writing from me, but I can check.”
Maybe he has since checked; if so, he hasn’t yet said what he found.
During that same December 2011 hearing Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) focused in on the emails by saying, “Mr. Issa mentioned some internal emails that I think are pretty important.”
Holder acknowledged that he does have an official email account and a private one, but he wouldn’t say how often he uses either. He also said he hadn’t seen emails that were printed in a CBS report that indicated Operation Fast and Furious might have been all about pushing new gun-control regulations.
Rep. Franks said he understood that Holder doesn’t read all the memos his staff sends to his desk. Holder seemed to agree with this. Then Rep. Franks asked, “Do you read letters from Grassley and Issa?”
After a pause, Holder said, “I think it’s fair to say over the last few months I’ve read all of Issa’s and Grassley’s letters.”
The spectators brook decorum by laughing. This question, however, was a set-up, as Rep. Franks next said, “Mr. Holder these emails were attached to one of those letters.”
Holder then replied that he “doesn’t always read attachments.”
That should have made him blush.
The next congressman to continue the push for Holder’s emails was Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT): “Have you spoken with [Secretary of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano, [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton, [President Barack] Obama, the president of Mexico … about Operation Fast and Furious.”
Holder indicated he hadn’t.
Chaffetz said, “We have 50 members of Congress calling for your resignation … you took five days to go to the Caribbean and you didn’t take five minutes to talk to Hillary or Napolitano?” Holder responded that his staff has been in touch with them.
Chaffetz then asked about a joint task force Holder has with Napolitano and added, “Yet you never talked about Fast and Furious?”
Holder responded in part by saying, “Let me tell you how Washington works, okay….”
This drew another laugh and it really was ridiculous.
These exchanges again show the stonewalling congressional investigators have been dealing with. They explain why some congressional staff members have nicknamed Holder “withholder in general.” The investigators have a right to be frustrated; after all, many of the 7,600 pages of documents that have been released have been redacted (meaning they were blacked out).
So back to Watergate: Why would President Obama use executive privilege to keep Attorney General Holder’s emails from Congress if those emails don’t implicate the White House? This has Republicans accusing the Obama administration of a “cover-up” and questioning the validity of President Obama’s claim of executive privilege for internal Justice Department deliberations.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is coming to this conclusion. He said, “The decision to invoke executive privilege is an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and have covered up the truth.”
President Obama agrees. During the 2008 campaign then-Senator Obama was asked by The Boston Globe about executive privilege. Obama said, “My view is that executive privilege generally depends on the involvement of the president and the White House.”
So this seems to go all the way to the White House.
Now, if documents aren’t handed over—which, sources say, include Holder’s emails—the full House will likely vote on holding Attorney General Holder in contempt.
Meanwhile, though these missing emails may or may not be as damning as the missing minutes were on the Nixon tapes, we should remember that it took almost eight months for the Watergate scandal to bust wide open into a national news story.
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