WASHINGTON — Speaker John Boehner demanded Thursday that the Obama administration give in and turn over documents related to a botched gun-tracking operation, insisting that's the only way to stop a House vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.
Boehner took a hard line against the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder despite a willingness by House Republicans and Holder to negotiate a settlement before the matter becomes a constitutional crisis. The president has invoked executive privilege, a legal principle used to avoid disclosure of internal presidential documents.
While a confrontation between the legislative and executive branches of government would be an academic dispute to most voters, Boehner on Thursday injected a human element into the dispute over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious. He said the family of slain border agent Brian Terry deserved answers about the guns that killed him.
Two guns that were allowed to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico in the failed effort to track weapons were found near Terry after he was killed.
"The Terry family deserves answers about why their son was killed as a result of an operation run by the United States government," Boehner told his weekly news conference.
During the year and a half investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Justice Department turned over 7,600 documents about details of Operation Fast and Furious. But because the department initially denied and then admitted it used a risky investigative technique known as "gun-walking," the committee has turned its attention to how the Justice Department responded to the investigation. The additional documents it seeks are about that topic.
Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased. Instead, the goal of gun-walking was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who had long eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking has long been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Fast and Furious. These experiments came as the department was under widespread criticism that the old policy of arresting every suspected low-level "straw purchaser" was still allowing tens of thousands of guns to reach Mexico. A straw purchaser is an illicit buyer of guns for others.
The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in Operation Fast and Furious.
Boehner renewed his allegation that President Obama's decision to assert executive privilege to withhold the documents "is an admission the White House officials were involved in the decision that misled the Congress and covered up the truth." In fact, historically, several presidents have invoked executive privilege over Cabinet department documents that did not directly involve White House officials.
House Democrats gave no ground. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California accused Republicans of pursuing Holder to retaliate against his effort to stop suppression of voters in the upcoming elections. "I'm telling you, this is connected," she told reporters.
Holder, in Copenhagen, Denmark, for meetings with European Union officials, said the administration had given the committee a proposal to negotiate an end to the conflict.
"I think the possibility still exists that it can happen in that way," Holder said. "The proposal that we have made is still there. The House, I think, the House leadership, has to consider now what they will do, so we'll see how it works out."
But he called the contempt vote "unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said there was "absolutely" no cover-up on the Fast and Furious controversy. He said executive privilege was asserted only on internal deliberations and "that is separate from trying to find out the truth about this operation."
House Oversight Committee officials who would conduct any negotiations on behalf of Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said they are looking for at least some additional documents — plus some "signs of good faith."
The latter could include substantive responses to future committee requests for documents; reforming the approval process for wiretap applications; acknowledging mistakes in misleading Congress about Fast and Furious; taking whistle-blowers seriously; and producing a log of documents to be turned over, according to the officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue by name. Committee officials said the department only gave cursory scrutiny to wiretap applications against Fast and Furious targets.
Democrats contended that the 23-17 party-line contempt vote in committee Wednesday was just political theater. The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, called the vote "an extreme, virtually unprecedented action based on election-year politics rather than fact."
Holder offered to give lawmakers a briefing on the withheld documents but insisted that this action satisfy Issa's subpoena for the records and negate the need for a contempt vote. Issa rejected the offer, saying it was an attempt to force an end to the committee's investigation.
Boehner on Thursday rejected Holder's approach.
"The negotiation that was proposed by the attorney general is, we should accept some documents of his choosing and, as a result of him turning over some documents of his choosing, that we would never ever pursue contempt," Boehner said. "Now this is not hardly a rational basis for a negotiation, nor is it a reasonable attempt at turning over the documents we've been asking for."