WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives panel investigating a botched U.S.-Mexico gun running sting is taking his demand for documents directly to the White House, according to a letter released on Tuesday.
In a seven-page letter to President Barack Obama, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa questioned the president's assertion of executive privilege in refusing to turn over the documents and called on him to release the information to avoid contempt proceedings against the top U.S. law enforcement official.
The move comes before the full House is vote Thursday on whether Attorney General Eric Holder should be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over some Justice Department documents in the case, which was named "Operation Fast and Furious."
"Your privilege assertion means one of two things. Either you or your most senior advisors were involved in managing Operation Fast and Furious and the fallout from it ... or you are asserting a presidential power that you know to be unjustified solely for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation," Issa wrote in the letter, dated Monday.
Although the White House has denied advising the Justice Department, "the surprising assertion of executive privilege raised the question of whether that is still the case," Issa said.
Republicans control the House and some have suggested that some sort of a cover-up of information took place regarding the 2009-11 operation, which was meant to help federal agents follow the flow of weapons from Arizona into Mexico, where they were thought to fall into the hands of drug cartels.
Instead, U.S. agents lost track of many of the guns. Some of the weapons were involved in crimes, including the killing of a Border Patrol agent.
On Sunday, Issa said he had no evidence that the White House was involved in a cover-up about Fast and Furious or in providing misleading information to Congress.
Interviewed on "Fox News Sunday," Issa said the documents being shielded by the White House would help provide information about how much high-level Obama administration officials knew about a February 4, 2011 Justice Department letter that wrongly denied that guns had been allowed to "walk" into Mexico.
Democrats have said Issa's probe is an election year-inspired witch hunt.
The House is expected to vote on Thursday on whether to hold Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over all the documents demanded by lawmakers.
Issa said he still believes "a settlement ... is in the best interests of the Justice Department, Congress, and those most directly affected" by the operation. It would also make the contempt vote "unnecessary," he added.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Vicki Allen)