What is President Obama hiding? That's the question at the center of a Judicial Watch lawsuit filed this week. Just like Congress, JW has been aggressively pursuing Operation Fast and Furious records first withheld by the Obama Department of Justice (DOJ) and then subsequently shielded from disclosure by the President himself when he inappropriately invoked executive privilege to keep them secret.
Here's what we're after pursuant to a June 22, 2012, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed with the Office of Information Policy (OIP), a component of the DOJ:
All records subject to the claim of executive privilege invoked by President Barack Obama on or about June 20, 2012, as referenced in the letter of Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole to the Honorable Darrell E. Issa, Chairman, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, dated June 20, 2012. More specifically, the records requested herein are those records described by Deputy Attorney General Cole in his June 20, 2012 letter as "the relevant post-February, 2011, documents" over which "the President has asserted executive privilege."
As per usual, we're getting the runaround.
On August 6, 2012, OIP informed Judicial Watch that the Offices of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General had determined that the documents responsive to Judicial Watch's FOIA request should be withheld in full, pursuant to FOIA Exemption 5 that protects "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency." We appealed the determination. By law, a response was due September 11, 2012. However, as of the date of Judicial Watch's lawsuit, the DOJ had failed to respond.
Now we're in court, doing whatever we can to shed light on who was responsible for Fast and Furious, why it was initiated, and how it could go so terribly wrong.
By way of review, Fast and Furious is the DOJ/Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) "gun-running" operation in which the Obama administration reportedly sold guns to Mexican drug cartels in hopes that they would end up at crime scenes.
And what was the point of that? It appears the Obama administration needed more ammunition to push for stricter gun control laws and figured if it could demonstrate that crimes in Mexico were being carried out with weapons purchased in the U.S. that would do the trick.
To say this is an outrage - to allow guns to "walk" into the hands of Mexican drug criminals in order to stick it to the gun lobby - doesn't come close to describing the despicable nature of this scheme.
Fast and Furious remained a dirty Obama administration secret until December 2010. That's when Fast and Furious weapons were found at the crime scene where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered. The incident led to a barrage of press coverage and pressure on the Obama administration to explain itself. Answers, unfortunately, have been in short supply. The Obama DOJ initially lied about the scandal and has never provided a full accounting of how specific actions taken by ATF led directly to the death of at least one American law enforcement agent and countless Mexicans. (As Eric Holder himself noted in testimony before Congress, there's no telling how many people will ultimately die due to Fast and Furious.)
Congressional investigators, led by Rep. Darryl Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have been fighting to secure records related to the Fast and Furious program, only to be stonewalled by the DOJ. The fact that the DOJ fought tooth-and-nail to protect these documents was not at all surprising, given the Obama administration's horrible record on transparency.
But then, just hours before Rep. Issa's committee was to vote to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress for ignoring subpoenas related to the scandal, something extraordinary happened.
On June 20, 2012, President Obama made a highly controversial decision to assert Executive Privilege to shield the DOJ's Fast and Furious records from disclosure. Executive privilege is typically reserved to "protect" White House records, not the records of federal agencies, which must be made available, subject to specific exceptions, under the FOIA.
The president's assertion of executive privilege has thus far kept these Fast and Furious records secret, but it did not prevent Congress from voting on the contempt citation. On June 28, 2012, Congress voted 255-67 to hold Holder in contempt. (A number of Democrats joined the vote, while other Democrats, endorsing lawlessness, walked out in protest.) A second vote, 258-95, authorized the pursuit of records through civil litigation in the courts.
It certainly appears that the president improperly invoked executive privilege to cover-up the Fast and Furious scandal and to protect his corrupt Attorney General from further harm and embarrassment - and prosecution. It should go without saying that the Obama administration must come clean and complete the public record on one of the most egregious violations of public trust in modern political history. But, then again, the importance of FOIA law seems completely lost on the "most transparent presidential administration in history."
And so we continue to fight. As I told Politico, I suspect we will get the information before Congress does:
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said Thursday that the group's suit could have some benefit even before or without any actual records becoming public.
"Despite a contempt resolution being passed and the [House] litigation, the administration has refused to disclose exactly what they're withholding and why," Fitton said in an interview. "We think a FOIA lawsuit is a simple, direct way to get a handle on what's being withheld and why and provides a good vehicle to challenge withholdings, if they are improper, as we suspect they are."
In addition to this most recent FOIA lawsuit, Judicial Watch separately filed a FOIA lawsuit against the ATF seeking access to records detailing communications between ATF officials and a White House official regarding Fast and Furious.