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Rozell and Sollenberger: No Choice: Contempt for Eric Holder

Recent revelations about high level Department of Justice involvement in planning and covering up details of Operation Fast and Furious leave the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), no choice. They need to process a contempt citation against Attorney General Eric Holder.

As is almost always the case in this era of intensified partisanship, committee member positions on the DOJ’s and the attorney general’s culpability track perfectly along partisan lines, with Republicans turning up the heat and Democrats steadfastly defending the Obama administration. That is unfortunate, as it allows once again those who support the administration to dismiss this investigation as nothing more than an election year ploy to politically hurt the president and his party.

But newly leaked information about the DOJ’s actions leaves no doubt that the committee has a duty now to aggressively pursue any and all information germane to its investigation. Six wiretap applications for the Fast and Furious program signed off by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco  provide clear evidence that this scandal reaches the top level of the DOJ. Dismissing the investigation as mere partisan politics simply is not credible given what we now know.

The undisputed fact is that there are two dead federal agents and potentially hundreds killed in Mexico because top DOJ officials approved the sale of thousands of weapons and never determined how such dangerous firearms would be tracked.

Furthermore, DOJ has been sitting on a request for specific information about Fast and Furious since October. To be sure, it has produced a series of Friday night document dumps that allow the attorney general to testify that he and the department are really cooperating with this investigation.

But everyone on the committee knows it is the oldest trick in the book to release reams of materials while holding back those that are most directly germane to answering its questions. And one cannot help but wonder what information is in the more than 130,000 documents relating to Fast and Furious that Holder recently admitted that the Justice Department has not disclosed.

So the committee has exhausted its means of compelling the DOJ to cooperate fully with this investigation. Enough is enough. Eight months of stonewalling make it clear that further appeals for documents, additional testimony by the attorney general and other department officials will not change this pattern. If Congress wants to get to the bottom of this scandal and make sure that the responsible officials are held accountable, it has to use whatever constitutional tools it has at its disposal, even if that means holding Holder in contempt.

The necessary path for Holder going forward is to finally cooperate with the Congressional investigation and respond forthrightly and fully to the subpoena requests. Such a decision is not only in the best interest of the Obama administration but also of the American people, who have a right to know the truth and to demand  accountability. Continued stonewalling does not resolve this battle between the branches and it suggests that Holder possibly has something to hide.

The Fast and Furious scandal is a continued stain on an administration led by the one-time presidential candidate who promised in 2008 to promote government transparency. At the time, candidate Barack Obama said he would reverse the widely criticized practice of President George W. Bush of blocking Congressional requests for information at nearly every turn. If President Barack Obama still believes in the principle of openness, then right now he has the opportunity to act on his promise and order Holder to cooperate with the House committee.

Obama’s Justice Department and other federal law enforcement agencies mismanaged Operation Fast and Furious at every step of the way, from implementation to investigation. Regardless of whether the scandal resulted from willful deceit or simple incompetence on the part of top DOJ officials, Holder must now cooperate. Otherwise, a contempt resolution is necessary.

Mitchel A. Sollenberger is associate professor of political science at University of Michigan-Dearborn. Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University. They are co-authors of “The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution.”

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