WASHINGTON -- Fights between Congress and the executive branch over access to information are a staple of American politics. Every president will prefer less disclosure about the messy internal processes of his administration. Congressional investigators suspecting scandal prefer more. In the end, some accommodation short of a constitutional crisis is usually achieved.
The government's "gun-walking" program would be considered a scandal in any administration, involving 2,000 loose firearms and a dead Border Patrol agent. But an accommodation with congressional investigators has not been reached. The balance of powers has become a showdown. And the main reason is Attorney General Eric Holder.
In a February 2011 letter to Congress, the Justice Department denied any knowledge of "Fast and Furious." During May congressional testimony, Holder claimed that he had only recently learned of the matter. Both letter and testimony turned out to be false. Holder's top aides had reviewed wiretapping applications containing specific details. Holder had received memos referencing the operation. Congress had been left under a false impression for nine months.
The response of the Justice Department to this disclosure was to fight further disclosures -- permitting investigation into the original program but not into the misstatements and corrections that followed. Holder has absurdly claimed credit for providing 7,600 pages (about 8 percent) of the material investigators have requested, as though the problem might not be found on page 7,601.
Any Justice Department would defend its prerogatives. But this one has also exhausted its credibility. False statements have given way to transparent obstruction. Eric Holder treated Congress with contempt long before it considered citing him for it.
"I take pride in being careful, not intemperate," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former state Supreme Court judge, told me. "But I'm just fed up." He is particularly offended by the lack of accountability. "There were 2,000 weapons that walked. Who knows how many more agents are at risk? Yet when I asked if it happened in Texas, I got no answer. Another stonewall." These events, says Cornyn, "raise a question: What does it take to get fired in Eric Holder's Justice Department?"