If President Obama retained any credible claim to running a transparent administration, he surrendered it Wednesday when he asserted executive privilege over Justice Department documents pertaining to Operation Fast and Furious.
Congress had subpoenaed the material as part of its investigation into a scheme by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, by which the United States government intentionally permitted thousands of guns to be purchased in the United States and smuggled to Mexican cartels. At best, Obama's action prevents Congress and the American people from understanding how and why Attorney General Eric Holder misled Congress about the operation in 2011. At worst, Obama has inserted himself personally into a scandal in order to protect his political appointees from the consequences of their actions.
"The Department of Justice has fought this committee's investigation every step of the way," said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. This resistance, he noted, included "an unequivocal denial that it used the reckless tactics we now know were used in Fast and Furious" -- a denial that came in a February 4, 2011, letter, drafted by an assistant attorney general who recently left the department. Holder has refused to give House investigators 140,000 documents that might reveal why it took 10 months for the Justice Department to retract that false letter.
"It's clear that Congress relies on its ability to get truthful testimony when investigating the executive branch," Issa noted, explaining why his committee was voting to hold Holder in contempt of Congress. Holder surprised Issa on Tuesday night when he showed up for a meeting without the documents in question. He instead offered them to Issa only on the condition that he agree to withdraw his subpoenas and shut down his investigation in advance. "The only thing extraordinary about his offer is that he is asking the committee to close its investigation before it even receives the documents," Issa said during the contempt vote hearing. "I can't accept that deal."
Such an offer falls far short of the standards Obama set at the beginning of his administration. In 2007, Obama accused then-President Bush of trying to "hide behind executive privilege" in order to thwart congressional investigations. Two years later, as president, he promised to run his administration differently. In a 2009 memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, Obama wrote, "In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
Fast and Furious is a deadly serious issue. Guns from the operation have turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including at the scene of the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. It is difficult to see how Obama's preference for secrecy in this case will result in any benefit to the public. It is equally difficult to see how he can square this executive privilege claim with his lofty promises of transparency.