Pity lead House Republican investigator Rep. Darrell Issa of California. It is his misfortune that he isn’t looking into matters about which the Obama administration can talk freely — namely, all its covert national-security programs.
If Justice Department documents that Issa’s committee seeks from Attorney General Eric Holder had been the subject of a top-secret meeting in the White House Situation Room, their contents already would have been splashed across the media. Issa could read the A1 New York Times story and be done with it….
But the Holder documents are an entirely different matter. They relate to the bizarrely misconceived Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed guns purchased from U.S. shops to fall into the hands of Mexican drug gangs on the theory that . . . well, it’s not clear exactly what the theory was. Somehow, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives thought that letting 2,000 guns “walk” into the arsenals of bad actors with no means of tracking them would be a devastating blow against gun-trafficking.
The cone of silence has slammed shut on the latest batch of Fast and Furious documents subpoenaed by Issa. When it is a secret, high-tech program to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, administration officials are chatty and expansive; when it is documents that could further embarrass Attorney General Holder, their rule is “Loose lips sink ships.” President Barack Obama is making a dubious claim of executive privilege to protect documents that, if they are truly of no consequence, there’s no reason to protect.
From the beginning, Holder’s Justice Department hasn’t been able to keep its story straight on Fast and Furious, although it’s always insisted that top officials had no prior knowledge of it. In a February 2011 letter, it told Congress that the ATF made “every effort” to interdict the guns before they got into Mexico (wrong) and that it hadn’t “‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons” to suspicious people (false). The proximate cause of the current showdown is Issa’s quest to see documents that might shed more light on who worked up and approved the misleading letter.
The head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, Lanny Breuer, didn’t bother to tell Congress in testimony that he saw drafts of the letter and forwarded them to his personal e-mail account. Now he’s been afflicted with a severe case of Beltway amnesia. “I cannot say for sure,” he has told Congress, “whether I saw a draft of the letter.” Poor Mr. Breuer just can’t recall.
His boss has, at times, given the impression of mistaking congressional hearings for an Abbott and Costello skit. Asked about an e-mail between top Justice officials with a reference in it to Fast and Furious back in 2010, Holder insisted — with comic brazenness — that the e-mail didn’t refer to Fast and Furious. He had to backtrack the other day from his contention in congressional testimony that his predecessor, Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey, had been briefed about a Bush-era gun program loosely resembling Fast and Furious. As a mercy to his attorney general, Obama should make up some claim of executive privilege that keeps him from subjecting himself to the rigors of congressional testimony ever again.
When White House spokesman Jay Carney said in his briefing that the claim of executive privilege was all about principle, reporters laughed. Executive privilege is important to protecting communications involving the president and his staff. It was never meant as an all-purpose shield to keep cabinet agencies from having to cooperate with congressional investigations. Obama’s claim in this instance is so risible it naturally raises the suspicion that the documents must contain more discomfiting information for Holder.
If the documents back the Justice Department’s contention that it has dealt openly and honestly with Congress, why wouldn’t they be made public like all other information — even classified information — helpful to the administration’s public image? If Holder can’t quite bring himself to turn them over to Congress, surely he can leak them.