(CBS News) A year-and-a-half long investigation into a botched gun trafficking program culminated Wednesday with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along party lines to pass a resolution holding the attorney general in contempt for withholding documents pertaining to Operation Fast and Furious.
The vote went forward despite intervention by President Obama, who invoked executive privilege, which protects the Justice Department from handing over documents, even though a subpoena has been issued.
For Holder to be held in contempt, the full House of Representatives must approve the committee’s resolution, though punishment could be hard to hand down. A 2007 Congressional Research Service report notes if “information is protected under executive privilege, past practice suggests that the Department of Justice will not pursue a prosecution.”
At issue are documents over the Arizona gunwalking program that put guns in the hands of illicit gun purchasers as a way to track Mexican smuggling cartels. As a result of the program, hundreds of guns showed up in Mexico and one was found where a U.S. border agent was killed. Issa and his counterpart in the Senate, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa., opened an investigation into the case more than a year ago.
An attempt to diffuse the standoff failed Tuesday after Rep. Issa and Holder were unable to reach an agreement regarding Justice Department documents on the program between February and December of 2011.
“We’re not looking to hold people responsible. We’re looking for document production,” Issa said Tuesday.
Holder said he has provided more than 7,500 pages of documents and that on Tuesday he made Issa an “extraordinary” offer that includes documents, a briefing on those documents and answers to questions Issa and his committee might have.
The contempt proceeding has elevated the face-off between the executive and legislative branches, which has led to the White House becoming involved by asserting executive privilege.
In a letter to President Obama asking for executive privilege, the attorney general wrote “that the Committee has not established that privileged documents are demonstrably critical to the responsible fulfillment of the Committee’s legitimate legislative functions.”
A White House aide told CBS News that this is the first time President Obama has asserted executive privilege, and noted that President George W. Bush used the privilege six times and President Bill Clinton used it 14 times.
With the White House’s move, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, raised the prospect that the Obama administration was involved in Fast and Furious.
“Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice. The White House decision to invoke executive privilege implies that White House officials were either involved in the ‘Fast and Furious’ operation or the cover-up that followed. The Administration has always insisted that wasn’t the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?” Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel wrote in a statement.
However, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee defended the president’s assertion of executive privilege.
“In this case, it seems clear that the Administration was forced into this position by the Committee’s unreasonable insistence on pressing forward with contempt despite the Attorney General’s good faith offer,” Rep. Cummings said at Wednesday’s contempt proceedings.