'Fast and Furious' probe: Obama's Watergate, or a waste of time?

The political fight over 'Fast and Furious' has escalated dramatically. Republicans say it could be as serious as the Watergate break-in 40 years ago that brought down Richard Nixon. Democrats call it a politically motivated fishing expedition designed to embarrass Obama.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa (R) of California, right, considers Wednesday whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the panel, speaks at left.

The struggle between House Republicans and the Obama administration over the former’s investigation into the latter’s failed “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation escalated dramatically this week. Will the House probe uncover an Obama administration scandal as profound as Watergate, as some in the GOP believe? Or is it an election-oriented fishing expedition, as White House spokesman Jay Carney contends?

In a Washington, D.C., long riven by partisanship, the split over this issue is now as deep and bitter as they come.

“This is about getting to the truth for the American people,” said the Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner on Thursday.

“This is an attempt to score political points,” replied the Democratic administration’s Mr. Carney later in the day.

Two moves on Wednesday helped power this new polarization. President Obama asserted executive privilege to withhold from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee requested documents dealing with the “Fast and Furious” operation. The House panel then voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.

Mr. Obama’s move to try to cloak documents with his executive privilege power infuriated many on the right. The administration has already turned over to Congress some 7,600 documents dealing with “Fast and Furious” – an operation in which federal agents based in Arizona lost track of guns they had allowed criminals to obtain in an attempt to trace them back to gang leaders. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the House Oversight panel, in particular is trying to figure out why the Justice Department sent him a letter in February saying the operation hadn’t used such a “gun-walking” technique – then withdrew that same letter, saying it was inaccurate.

Republicans suspect that the documents the White House is withholding show that administration higher-ups knew what was happening all along. That’s where some draw parallels with Watergate.

Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, in a Wednesday appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, noted that the original Watergate break-in occurred 40 years ago this week. Eventually, President Nixon asserted executive privilege in a (failed) attempt to prevent the White House tapes from becoming public.

“The president has mirrored that now,” said Representative King. “That means that implies very strongly ... that this information that Darrell Issa is searching for and trying to subpoena links inside the White House itself, most likely that the information was prepared for the president’s eyes and perhaps it was seen by the president.”

The administration, for its part, replies that it has made available to Issa’s committee virtually all documents dealing with “Fast and Furious” per se. What Issa wants now, according to White House spokesman Carney, are “after the fact documents” that don’t bear on the failed sting operation itself.

Mr. Holder has offered to share much of the information in those after-the-fact papers with the committee, say Democrats. Yet Issa turned that offer down – meaning he’s not really after facts, in the Democratic view.

“Instead of creating jobs or helping the middle class, congressional Republicans are focused on this politically motivated, taxpayer-funded, election-year fishing expedition,” said Carney at his Thursday briefing.

For their part, Republicans complain that Holder’s sharing offer rested on the assumption that the administration would get to pick the documents and information shared, and that in return the House would have to drop contempt proceedings against Holder.

“This is not hardly a rational basis for negotiation,” said Speaker Boehner on Thursday at his weekly press conference.

Then House minority leader Nancy Pelosi doubled down on Democrats' criticism of the House process, saying on Thursday that the real aim of the GOP’s “Fast and Furious” investigation is to get rid of an attorney general who has fought state efforts to introduce more stringent identification requirements for voters. Democrats have long charged that such requirements are actually attempts to keep their supporters away from the polls.

“These very same people who are holding him in contempt are part of a nationwide scheme to suppress the vote,” charged Representative Pelosi.

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