'Fast and Furious' Scandal Spotlights President's Executive Privilege

Attorney General Eric Holder's squabble with Congress over Fast and Furious documents had mostly been confined to the circle of political insiders and reporters. But many more started to wonder what the White House was trying to keep under wraps after President Obama exercised his executive privilege Wednesday on behalf of his attorney general.

To many, the term "executive privilege" and its use in the executive branch are not well understood. The presidential use of executive privilege is used only in rare occasions when information perceived as harmful to national security needs to be withheld from Congress, and in the age of rapid information, from the public at large.

Although used by presidents in the early years of the nation, the term was first recognized during the Eisenhower administration when his attorney general was being asked to testify regarding the activities of several American citizens.

President Nixon attempted to use the same power to withhold his White House tapes. But federal courts ruled that while presidents did possess some "executive privilege," its use was not without limitations, especially if illegal activity was suspected.

In modern times, President Clinton invoked its use on 14 occasions, but was the first president to lose the right when a federal judge ruled that Clinton aides could be called to testify in the case involving Monica Lewinsky.

President Bush used executive privilege six times, including once in 2007 when he refused to allow White House adviser Karl Rove to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee over the issue of federal prosecutors fired for political reasons.

Yet Obama's most recent use of the privilege puts the spotlight on the White House, which has denied having any direct knowledge or involvement in Fast and Furious, the gun program designed to entrap and identify drug smugglers in Mexico.

When Holder sent the letter to the president asking him to claim executive privilege, he wrote that if the requested documents were released, it would "inhibit the candor of executive branch deliberations in the future and significantly impair the ability of the executive branch to respond independently and effectively to congressional oversight."

Moments after the White House announced the president's decision on act on Holder's behalf, Republicans began an immediate assault on both Obama and Holder. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) questioned the president's motives and if he was indeed attempting to withhold critical information.

"The administration has always insisted that wasn't the case. Were they lying, or are they now bending the law to hide the truth?" asked Boehner's press secretary Brendan Buck.

New York GOP Congressman Michael Grimm remarked, "It is a sad day for America when the president of the United States intervenes in an act obstructing truth and justice…we have a responsibility to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious and bring full transparency to the situation."

However, the president's actions did not keep the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its Republican Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) from voting along party lines to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for his failure to comply with the committee's subpoena request.

In order for the House to officially hold the attorney general in contempt, a majority of the full body House must approve. If the House does vote to hold Holder in contempt, Congress would then bring a civil suit to a federal district court, asking them force the Justice Department to turn over the documents.

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