The effort by House Republicans to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress should be called what it is: hyperpartisan grandstanding. But President Barack Obama's response — to shield Justice Department records from the public's view — is not defensible and undermines the rule of law. The administration should turn over the documents in question or provide further justification for withholding them. The president is not above the law, and his claims of executive privilege will not, and should not, suffice.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is investigating "Fast and Furious," a failed gun-trafficking probe by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that allowed roughly 2,000 guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. The committee is seeking documents that detail how the Justice Department learned that the bureau had intentionally let guns move across the border in an attempt to build a bigger case against traffickers. What has ensued is a back-and-forth between Holder and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the committee. Holder has turned over thousands of pages of documents, but they represent only a portion of those subpoenaed by the committee. As the committee prepared to take a vote on holding the attorney general in contempt on Wednesday, Obama claimed executive privilege in withholding the records.
Issa's quest amounts to little more than an attempt to embarrass the Obama administration, which he once labeled "the most corrupt government in history." Such brash posturing has unfortunately become par for the course this presidential election year. But the Obama administration has been equally at fault in its response. In its letter to Issa, the administration claimed that some of the documents were "generally not appropriate for disclosure" and that releasing them would "inhibit the candor" of executive branch deliberations.
The president will have to do better than that. On his first day in office, Obama pledged an administration of unprecedented transparency. But his actions, including aggressive attempts to root out and punish government whistle-blowers, belie that pledge. Invoking vaguely defined executive privilege for Justice Department records only casts more doubt on government accountability. Of course, for the executive branch to function, some sensitive documents can't be revealed. If the records in question are of this sort, the Obama administration should say so and provide a more detailed justification for withholding them.
House Republicans should drop the political theater and resume negotiations with the Justice Department. The Obama administration should make good on its promise of transparency, or better explain itself to the American people.