Executive privilege is not a political shield
T he House is moving forward with contempt of Congress charges against Attorney General Eric Holder, and President Barack Obama has claimed executive privilege in refusing to turn over documents Congress demanded from Holder. It’s clear the Operation Fast and Furious gun scandal will continue to proveide political ammunition this election.
Both sides have done political calculations and apparently concluded it’s to their advantage to keep the controversy alive rather than reach an accord with the other party. Republicans can continue to ask, “What is the administration hiding?” Democrats can complain that Holder has already turned over 7,600 documents so, “What more do Republicans want?”
Politics aside, we are concerned about Obama’s claim to executive privilege in withholding the requested documents.
This is from a president who vowed a more transparent administration than any previous presidency. When he was a U.S. senator, Obama blasted President George W. Bush — with good reason — for trying to “hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky going on.”
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held there is a legitimate place for executive privilge in matters of national security, and such claims go back to George Washington’s presidency, there is an unfortunate history of using the privilege to cover presidents’ political behinds.
Most notorious was President Richard Nixon’s effort to withhold secretly recorded Oval Office tapes during the Watergate scandal. The Supreme Court rejected his privilege claim, and the release of the tapes led directly to his resignation.
President Bill Clinton tried to use executive privilege to keep secret details of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and President George W. Bush used it in 2007 when Congress was looking into the firings of numerous Justice Department lawyers for what were believed to be political reasons.
Now, Obama is claiming the privilege for what seems to be an equally political reason.
There’s little doubt Republicans have sought to make political hay out of the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal. But it’s equally clear there is a real issue involved, and Holder’s Justice Department has yet to be entirely forthcoming on who authorized the program, who knew about it and when.
Fast and Furious allowed guns to be purchased at U.S. gunshops north of the border by people with known or suspected ties to drug cartels in Mexico. Under the program, federal agents were prohibited from arresting the buyers before they took the weapons across the border into Mexico. That made it different from a somewhat similar program during the Bush administration, which allowed the same sort of purchases but attempted to catch the buyers before they crossed the border.
Justice Department officials at first denied there was any such program. Later, they acknowledged it and said the aim was to track the weapons to major drug lords in Mexico, although that effort failed.
The author of a book on Fast and Furious, as well as other critics, claims the real intention was to make border guns sales look so out of line that Congress would be open to new laws on gun registration and curbing sales.
In any event, several thousand guns tracked by Fast and Furious made it to Mexico. One of them was used in the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in late 2010. Others have been linked to the deaths of civilians in Mexico.
Whatever its intent, Fast and Furious was a poorly conceived program that went horribly awry. Congress and the American people have every right to know the details of the program and how high up the chain of command knowedge and support of the program traveled.
Additionally, President Obama has yet to articulate a valid reason to claim executive privilege on Fast and Furious.