After House Republicans elevated a petty partisan battle over documents into an actual contempt vote taken by members of a Congressional committee, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder struck back, calling the vote “unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented.” Holder was the first Obama official to be held in contempt by Congress.
While Holder remains a favorite target of the conservative right, the contempt vote passed by the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is primarily a matter of House Republicans attempting to exploit a chance to make Holder and President Obama look bad, to appear as if they are trying to hide something. The dispute centers around a botched ATF undercover operation in 2011 that resulted in nearly two thousand guns that were illegally purchased at Arizona guns shops—with the knowledge of ATF agents—winding up being used in at least 200 murders in Mexico and ultimately the murder of ATF agent Brian Terry.
Though the undercover operations actually began during the Bush administration and the 2011 operation was initiated by lower-level ATF officials, Republicans have been trying to use the case to crucify Holder and paint him as incompetent because he wasn’t aware of the operation—both Holder and President Obama have said they didn’t approve of it—and gave Congress misleading answers early in its probe. But Holder and Democrats in Congress claim that the documents Holder’s Justice Department has offered to the committee are unprecedented in number and scope, going far beyond what members of Congress would normally be cleared to view.
“We put before the committee a proposal that would have allowed for a resolution of that matter, consistent with the way in which these have been resolved in the past,” Holder said yesterday while at a meeting in Copenhagen. “The action that the committee took was unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented.”
President Obama yesterday invoked executive privilege in the case—the first time in his presidency he has done so—meaning he refuses to turn over the documents to Congress because they are deemed too sensitive. The access of House members to confidential documents is frequently restricted because they can be unreliable keepers of sensitive government secrets since they only hold two-year terms and are often willing to use whatever they can to garner publicity—particularly if it will make the sitting president of the opposition party look bad.