Hot on the heels of his self-coronation, Barack Obama continued the transition of his presidency to a monarchy when he invoked executive privilege to block release of Department of Justice documents in the Fast and Furious investigation ahead of a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
It was the second time in a week that President Obama gave Congress the one-fingered salute and demonstrated his willingness to roll over the Legislative Branch whenever the mood — or the need for votes — strikes.
Executive privilege is something which presidents occasionally invoke to protect the confidentiality of the Executive Branch’s operations. The authority for executive privilege is ultimately inferred from the constitutional separation of powers.
The Clinton Administration invoked executive privilege 14 times. The Bush Administration invoked it six times. This is the first time Obama has used the privilege.
The first time President George W. Bush invoked the privilege was to protect Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno and documents relating to FBI use of criminal informants and Clinton fundraising tactics. He asserted it again in the case of Vice President Cheney’s meetings with energy executives. Bush invoked the privilege three times in a congressional investigation over fired U.S. attorneys. The most controversial use was in a letter from White House counsel denying an oversight committee access to documents regarding discussions of the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman.
So what makes Obama’s use of executive privilege unusual? Two things: case specifics and timing.
The failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation resulted in the death of at least one Border Patrol agent. U.S.-made weapons that were given to drug runners were found at the scene of the murder of agent Brian Terry in December 2010, and at other crime scenes.
While Obama’s use of privilege may bear some superficial comparison to the White House’s use under Bush in the Tillman case, the Fast and Furious investigation involves an official government operation that deliberately put guns in the hands of criminals and directly resulted in the death of a U.S. agent.
The malfeasance implied in Fast and Furious is so outrageous that it may and probably should result in criminal penalties for Holder and numerous other officials.
This is not an investigation into whether some bureaucrats were fired properly, or whether a president lied about sex with an intern, or whether agent Terry was possibly killed by friendly fire. This is not even a probe into a break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
Fast and Furious represents a serious breach of trust with the American public, and it involved possibly criminal acts. The purpose of the operation was ostensibly to track the flow of weapons to Central and South American drug cartels, but there is a suggestion, based on years-ago statements by Holder, that the real purpose may have been political, to cause chaos on the Mexican border that would lead to a rationale for stricter gun controls throughout the U.S.
In a Jan. 30, 1995, speech to the Women’s National Democratic Club, then-U.S. Attorney Holder said, the government has to “really brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way.”
A July 2010 email from ATF Assistant Director Mark Chait that surfaced in the Fast and Furious case directed an agent to collect statistics about long gun sales in the program. Those statistics were used by the administration to implement a new long-gun reporting rule.
Another suggestion that Fast and Furious was about fomenting further gun restrictions came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a November 2011 committee hearing, when she said, “My concern, Mr. Chairman, is there’s been a lot said about Fast and Furious, and perhaps mistakes were made, but I think this hunt for blame doesn’t really speak about the problem. … And the problem is, anybody can walk in and buy anything, .50-caliber weapons, sniper weapons, buy them in large amounts, and send them down to Mexico. So, the question really becomes, what do we do about this?”
In his written testimony, Holder protested that Congress “voted to keep law enforcement in the dark when individuals purchase multiple semiautomatic rifles and shotguns in Southwest border gun shops.”
Coming as it did on the eve of a contempt vote for Holder, the assertion of executive privilege in this specific case raises the question of what exactly the administration is hiding and whether Obama had any involvement in Fast and Furious.
The question might have been slightly less urgent had Obama not just days before shown that he considers himself above the law by unilaterally passing amnesty for what could be millions of illegal immigrants against the will of Congress and the majority of America’s citizens and legal residents.
President Obama likes to compare himself to other presidents. He has even placed himself in the Top Four.
But the president he closely resembles today is Richard Nixon, who used executive privilege to try to block the Watergate Tapes.
Even that comparison is generous. No one died in Watergate.
Rep. Allen West got it right the other day. The person Obama really resembles most is King George III.