That episode has heightened suspicions among Republican lawmakers, who have demanded that the department hand over the records of any deliberations it had about Fast and Furious after the Feb. 4, 2011, letter.
Justice officials have insisted that no senior officials in the department knew of the controversial tactics, which were approved by ATF’s Phoenix division. They also have said they have worked hard to cooperate with requests from Issa’s committee. Over the past year, Justice officials have turned over 7,600 documents relating to the operation, as well as documents relating to another operation involving “gun-walking,” as the tactic is known, in the George W. Bush administration.
Holder has testified to congressional committees about Fast and Furious nine times over the past 14 months.
But Issa and his investigators said the Justice Department was not fully cooperating with their request, arguing that the records turned over were only a sliver of the 80,000 documents that Justice has given to the department’s inspector general, who is also investigating the gun operation at Holder’s request.
In recent weeks, Issa has narrowed his request to documents relating to “internal deliberations” over the operation. Justice officials have insisted that they do not have to hand over those files based on long-standing executive branch policy. They have also said that many of the documents delivered to the inspector general pertain to ongoing criminal investigations and legally cannot be released to Congress.
In a bid to head off a contempt vote, Holder met with Issa and several other lawmakers Tuesday evening. The attorney general agreed to turn over documents that Justice officials think would answer Issa’s questions if the committee would consider the subpoena issues related to Fast and Furious to be “resolved.” He told reporters afterward that the set of documents “pretty clearly demonstrates that there was no intention to mislead, to deceive.”
Issa declined the offer, however, saying he would not make such a determination until he saw the documents.
On Wednesday morning, just minutes before the scheduled hearing, committee staff members said they were informed by the Justice Department that Obama was invoking executive privilege to withhold the contested documents. After a six-hour hearing, the panel voted 23 to 17 to hold the attorney general in contempt.
“Fast and Furious was a reckless operation that led to the death of an American border agent, and the American people deserve to know the facts to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement after the vote.
House Democrats quickly denounced their plans to bring a vote to the floor next week.
“If Mr. Boehner takes this to the House, he will be seen as one of the most extreme speakers that ever took charge of the House,” the oversight committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), told reporters.
He noted that in the Clinton administration, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) declined to bring to the House floor a vote on contempt charges against Attorney General Janet Reno.
“Instead of going after guns, the Republican majority is going after the attorney general of the United States,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) told reporters. “This is a political witch hunt during the witch hunt season, and the witch hunt season will probably not end until Election Day.”
Staff writer Julie Tate contributed to this report.