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Issa, White House clash over Fast and Furious executive privilege


House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa, R-California, questions Obama's assertion of executive privilege in the Fast and Furious probe

Washington (CNN) — A war of words continued Tuesday over the possible contempt of Congress vote against Attorney General Eric Holder later this week, with the White House citing past examples of presidents claiming executive privilege in similar disputes over documents.

The White House response followed a letter Monday night from House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, that slammed President Barack Obama’s assertion of executive privilege in the panel’s probe of the botched Fast and Furious gun running sting.

With the House scheduled to vote Thursday on the contempt measure against Holder, the White House fired back against Issa with a list of past cases in which presidents asserted executive privilege for the same kinds of documents sought by Issa’s committee.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that House Republicans have made the dispute a political issue, while another spokesman, Eric Schultz, ridiculed Issa’s analysis of the executive privilege claim by Obama.

Issa’s panel has been seeking documents that show why the Justice Department decided to withdraw as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to Congress that said top officials had only recently learned about the Fast and Furious operation.

However, Holder has refused to turn over materials containing internal deliberations, and asked Obama to assert executive privilege over such documents last week.

In his letter Monday, Issa said Obama’s assertion of executive privilege means that he and his most senior advisers were involved in “managing” Fast and Furious and the “fallout from it” or that the president asserted a power he knows is unjustified “for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation.”

“To date, the White House has steadfastly maintained that it has not had any role in advising the (Justice) Department with respect to the congressional investigation. The surprising assertion of executive privilege raised the question of whether that is still the case,” Issa said in his letter.

Schultz responded that Issa’s account “has as much merit as his absurd contention that Operation Fast and Furious was created in order to promote gun control.”

“Our position is consistent with executive branch legal precedent for the past three decades spanning administrations of both parties, and dating back to President Reagan’s Department of Justice,” Schultz said. “The courts have routinely considered deliberative process privilege claims and affirmed the right of the executive branch to invoke the privilege even when White House documents are not involved.”

A supporting document provided by Schultz listed five such cases, including an October 1981 assertion by Reagan involving documents describing internal deliberations inside the Department of the Interior and another by Reagan a year later involving internal Environmental Protection Agency files.

Republicans on Issa’s committee approved the contempt measure against Holder for refusing to hand over all of the requested documents in the panel’s investigation of the operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The vote last week came after Obama asserted executive privilege over some documents sought by the panel. The White House move means the Department of Justice can withhold some of the documents.

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The ATF launched Operation Fast and Furious out of Arizona to track weapons purchases by Mexican drug cartels.

However, it lost track of more than 1,000 firearms that the agency had allowed straw buyers to carry across the border, and two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

If the House passes the contempt measure Thursday, it would be the first time in history a sitting U.S. attorney general was cited for contempt of Congress.

“I urge you to reconsider the decision to withhold documents that would allow Congress to complete its investigation,” Issa said in his letter. “I remain hopeful that the Attorney General will produce the specified documents so that we can work towards resolving this matter short of a contempt citation.”

By the numbers: Fast and Furious

The showdown between Issa and Holder over the Fast and Furious program dates back to subpoenas issued by the House committee last year.

Issa and Republicans contend that Holder and the Justice Department are concealing details of how Operation Fast and Furious was approved and managed.

Democrats argue that Issa and his GOP colleagues are using the issue to try to score political points by discrediting Holder and, by extension, the president in an election year.

A video released Tuesday by Democrats on Issa’s panel showed the chairman making past allegations of White House links to Fast and Furious, juxtaposed with Issa saying Sunday there was no evidence of a White House cover-up.

“Get the facts. Read the report,” the video says in conclusion.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, alleged last week that Republicans were targeting Holder because he is fighting their efforts to suppress voter turnout in November.

Issa, however, said in his letter that the assertion of executive privilege “raises more questions than it answers.”

The letter provided details of a June 19 meeting between Issa and Holder on the eve of the committee’s partisan vote on the contempt measure.

Issa said Holder wanted to “buy peace” on the matter.

“He indicated a willingness to produce the ‘fair compilation’ of post-February 4th documents. He told me that he would provide the ‘fair compilation’ of documents on three conditions: (1) that I permanently cancel the contempt vote; (2) that I agree the department was in full compliance with the committee’s subpoenas, and; (3) that I accept the ‘fair compilation,’ sight unseen,” Issa said in the letter, calling Holder’s conditions “unacceptable.”

“The attorney general’s conditional offer of a ‘fair compilation’ of a subset of documents covered by the subpoena, and your assertion of executive privilege, in no way substitute for the fact that the Justice Department is still grossly deficient in its compliance with the committee’s subpoena,” Issa’s letter said. “By the department’s own admission, it has withheld more than 130,000 pages of responsive documents.”

Issa also stressed the importance of forging a settlement rather than pursuing contempt of Congress proceedings, and asked the White House for answers to questions about the executive privilege assertion.

“To what extent were you or your most senior advisers involved in Operation Fast and Furious and the fallout from it, including the false February 4, 2011 letter provided by the attorney general to the committee?” Issa’s letter said. “Please also identify any communications, meetings, and teleconferences between the White House and the Justice Department between February 4, 2011 and June 18, 2012, the day before the Attorney General requested that you assert executive privilege.”

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