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Talks fail to resolve attorney general contempt issue
WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials and House Republican staff members Tuesday failed to resolve a document dispute that could lead to a precedent-setting contempt of Congress vote Thursday against Attorney General Eric Holder.
A House Republican official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said White House and Justice Department representatives met and showed GOP staff fewer than 30 pages of documents related to the aftermath of the botched gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious.
The GOP official said the administration also promised to provide hundreds of pages of documents, but only if House Republicans would stop the contempt effort and end their investigation. A House committee is looking into administration actions taken after the Justice Department provided inaccurate information to Congress on the gun-tracking operation.
The Justice Department has said the offer of more documents, originally made last week, was not an effort to shut down the investigation but rather an offer to resolve the outstanding subpoena issues and thereby avoid contempt.
The GOP official said the latest document offer was rejected and no further meetings were scheduled.
"The documents that were shown today did not shed any meaningful new light on the questions and interactions that took place at the Justice Department" after whistle-blowers told Congress that Fast and Furious allowed guns bought in Arizona to "walk" into Mexico, the GOP official said.
Those attending the meeting included White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, legislative director Rob Nabors, Justice Department official Steven Reich and representatives of House Speaker John Boehner and Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
President Barack Obama has asserted a broad version of executive privilege to keep Justice Department documents secret. The GOP official said the House staff members asked for a log of documents that would be withheld, but the administration officials refused.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said, "This was a good-faith effort to resolve this while still protecting the institutional prerogatives of the executive branch, often championed by these same Republicans criticizing us right now. Unfortunately, Republicans have opted for political theater rather than conduct legitimate congressional oversight."
A senior administration official who was not authorized to be quoted on details of the meeting said the administration showed the Republicans a representative sample of the documents so they could see firsthand the types of communications in dispute. The official said the administration offered unprecedented access to documents showing how the Justice Department responded to the GOP inquiry.
Now that the politically potent National Rifle Association is keeping score, some Democrats are expected to join House Republicans in supporting the contempt of Congress vote against Holder.
One of those Democrats, Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, said, "Sadly, it seems that it will take holding the attorney general in contempt to communicate that evasiveness is unacceptable. It is a vote I will support."
The gun owners association injected itself last week into the stalemate over Justice Department documents demanded by the House Oversight Committee. The NRA said it supports the contempt resolution and will keep a record of how members vote.
An NRA letter to House members contended that the Obama administration "actively sought information" from Operation Fast and Furious to support its program to require dealers to report multiple rifle sales.
The program, which began last August, imposed the requirement for sales of specifically identified long guns in four border states: Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. A federal judge upheld the requirement.
Republicans want Holder to become the first attorney general to be cited by the House for contempt because he has refused to give the Oversight Committee all the documents it wants related to Operation Fast and Furious.
Unless a last-minute deal is worked out, always a possibility in Congress, the contempt vote Thursday would be the same day the Supreme Court is to announce its ruling on the legality of the nation's health care law.
A vote to hold Holder in contempt of Congress wouldn't send any documents to the Oversight Committee.
Obama invoked what is known as "deliberative process privilege," a claim designed to broadly cover executive branch documents. However Issa, in a letter to the president, said Obama was misusing the narrower "presidential communications privilege," which is reserved for documents to and from the president and his most senior advisers.
White House Spokesman Eric Schultz said Tuesday that Issa's analysis "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."
Ironically, the documents at the heart of the current argument are not directly related to the workings of Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed guns to "walk" from Arizona to Mexico in hopes they could be tracked. The department has given Issa 7,600 documents on the operation.
Rather, Issa wants internal communications from February 2011, when the administration denied knowledge of gun-walking, to the end of that year, when officials acknowledged the denial was erroneous. Those documents covered a period after Fast and Furious had been shut down.
In Fast and Furious, agents of the federal 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 long had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has 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.
The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in Operation Fast and Furious. The low point of the operation came in Arizona in 2010, when U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a firefight with a group of armed Mexican bandits and two guns traced to the operation were found at the scene.
Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.