(CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama dived head first into the Operation Fast and Furious scandal Wednesday after spending more than a year keeping his distance from the botched gun sting that allowed nearly 2,000 weapons to flow into Mexico.
After claiming Obama said he had no knowledge of the scandal before hearing about it in the news, members of Congress are questioning that given his claim of executive privilege to withhold certain documents from Congress.
Oversight committee member Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said executive privilege is intended for communications at the highest levels of the White House. Thus, he said this either means Obama knew about this before saying so, or that he is making an unprecedented claim to executive privilege.
“If you look at how executive privilege has been historically interpreted it’s designed to protect the inner workings of the White House, the president talking to his advisors,” Farenthold told CNSNews.com. “It’s usually involved at the highest levels. And so it’s troubling if they’re trying to invoke it into every agency or every discussion within an agency. That certainly isn’t indicative of the most transparent administration in history, and it creates real problems for this committee.
“The other issue is, if it did go all the way up to the White House, there’s a problem there because you have Holder having testified under oath that he hadn’t talked to the president. You’ve had the president on Univision saying he didn’t know about it,” Farenthold continued. “So, to invoke executive privilege in the White House, that brings those statements into question.”
The assertion came just before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee scheduled vote on holding embattled Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a member of the committee, called for more deference to the executive branch.
“I am horrified that you are going forward with this contempt charge when the president of the United States and the administration have invoked executive privilege for the documents sought by the chairman,” Maloney said during the Wednesday hearing.
On June 27, 2011 CNSNews.com asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about the exact date that President Barack Obama first learned about Operation Fast and Furious. Carney responded “I’ll have to get back to you. I don’t have an exact date for you.”
It was not until October of last year that Carney clarified that Obama first heard about it when he read about it, and first stated so during an interview with CNN Espanol that aired on March 22, 2011.
In the March 22, 2011 interview, Obama said: “There have been problems, you know. I heard on the news about this story that Fast and Furious, where allegedly guns were being run into Mexico and ATF knew about it but didn't apprehend those who had sent it. Eric Holder has – the attorney general has been very clear that he knew nothing about this. We had assigned an IG, inspector general, to investigate it.”
In an October 2011 White House news conference, Obama took a question about Operation Fast and Furious, where he said that Holder “indicated that he was not aware of what was happening in Fast and Furious. Certainly, I was not. And I think both he and I would have been very unhappy if someone had suggested that guns were allowed to pass through that could have been prevented by the United States of America.”
On the morning of the committee vote, Deputy Attorney General James Cole sent a letter to committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) informing him that President Obama was invoking executive privilege.
“I write now to inform you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the relevant post-February 4, 2011, documents,” Cole wrote. “We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee's concerns and to accommodate the Committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious.”
The Justice Department provided just 7,600 documents about of more than 100,000 subpoenaed by the committee.
“The president’s assertion of executive privilege creates even more questions,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a member of the oversight committee. “One of the big issues that we’ve been dealing with is who knew about Fast and Furious? When did they know about it? And how high up did it go? And the attorney general has asserted on numerous occasions that he didn’t know about this.”
“Now the president of the United States has claimed executive privilege,” Burton continued. “That brings into question whether or not Eric Holder knew about it, and how much did the president know about this. Why would the president claim executive privilege unless there was something very, very important that he felt should not be made known to this committee?”
During the committee hearing, Issa said the president and the attorney general have said the White House was not aware of the operation.
“Additionally, at least in a preliminary evaluation, that the president, well after Feb. 4 , has said that in fact he has not discussed this and was not made aware of it,” Issa said during the committee meeting. “The attorney general has repeatedly given us testimony that he did not speak to the president about this.”
The committee is seeking only documents after Feb. 4, 2011 because that is the date when the Justice Department first denied whistleblower allegations that guns were allowed to walk in a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
“The assertion of executive privilege raises monumental questions,” Grassley said in a statement Wednesday. “How can the President assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement? How can the President exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme? The contempt citation is an important procedural mechanism in our system of checks and balances. The questions from Congress go to determining what happened in a disastrous government program for accountability and so that it's never repeated again.”
The Justice Department did not withdraw this initial denial until Dec. 2, 2011. The committee wants to know about internal deliberations with regards to its evolving story, and reactions of high ranking government officials who had knowledge of the gun walking.
“Until now, everyone believed that the decisions regarding Fast and Furious were confined to the Department of Justice,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “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?”