A federal judge ruled that the Justice Department must turn over internal records about its handling of the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning operation, rejecting President Obama’s assertion that disclosures can be blocked through executive privilege.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled Tuesday that the Justice Department’s own public disclosures about the operation undercut the Obama administration’s claims.
“The Court finds, under the unique and limited circumstances of this case, that the qualified privilege must yield, given the executive’s acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the investigation, and the fact that the Department itself has already publicly revealed the sum and substance of the very material it is now seeking to withhold,” Judge Jackson wrote. “Since any harm that would flow from the disclosures sought here would be merely incremental, the records must be produced.”
House Republicans sued the Justice Department in 2012 to force officials to hand over documents related to the botched operation, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives let guns be sold to traffickers in the hopes of cracking down on Mexican cartel operations.
Mr. Obama asserted executive privilege to prevent documents from being released, claiming they were part of the “deliberative process” of White House decision-making and therefore didn’t need to be divulged.
The Justice Department later turned over tens of thousands of pages of documents to Congress, but lawmakers continued to seek additional records that the department argued it was entitled to withhold. The refusal to release the additional documents as requested by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led the House to vote to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder in contempt of Congress.
The Fast and Furious operation was quickly halted after two of the weapons turned up at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with Mexican bandits, but by then several thousand weapons had gone unaccounted for.
Initially, the Justice Department assured Congress that no guns were ever knowingly allowed to be taken into Mexico. But months later under the leadership of Mr. Holder, the department had to recant that assurance, admitting that officials did in fact know agents weren’t tracing the traffickers who were buying the guns.
Tuesday’s ruling requires the Justice Department to turn over subpoenaed records by Feb. 2.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley urged the Justice Department to comply with the court’s deadline.
“Over the course of the last four years, the Obama administration has wasted time and taxpayer dollars in what appears to be an attempt to cover-up its own mistakes that led to thousands of guns being trafficked to Mexico and the death of a Border Patrol agent,” the Iowa Republican said.
It was not immediately clear whether the Justice Department will appeal the ruling.
Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas said Tuesday that…