By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A fight between the White House and House Republicans over documents from a botched U.S.-Mexico gun running sting intensified on Tuesday as the lawmaker heading the congressional probe accused the White House of obstructing the investigation.
In a heated seven-page letter to President Barack Obama made public on Tuesday, Representative Darrell Issa questioned the White House's motives for claiming executive privilege last week to shield some documents from "Operation Fast and Furious" from congressional investigators.
The letter from the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee came as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on Thursday on whether to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
"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.
Issa on Sunday told a television news show he had no evidence of a White House cover-up or involvement in the operation.
The 2009-11 "Fast and Furious" operation was meant to help federal agents follow the flow of weapons from Arizona into Mexico. But U.S. agents lost track of many of the guns, which were thought to fall into the hands of drug cartels and were later involved in crimes including the killing of a Border Patrol agent.
Issa's letter prompted White House spokesman Eric Schultz to respond in an email to reporters: "The congressman's analysis has as much merit as his absurd contention that 'Operation Fast and Furious' was created in order to promote gun control.
"Our position is consistent with Executive Branch legal precedent for the past three decades spanning administrations of both parties, and dating back to President Reagan's Department of Justice," Schultz said.
"The courts have routinely considered deliberative process privilege claims and affirmed the right of the executive branch to invoke the privilege even when White House documents are not involved," he said.
Democrats accuse House Republicans of engaging in an election-year witch hunt.
Some legal experts say there is little the House could do to enforce a contempt citation against the country's top law enforcement official or force the Justice Department to honor the committees' s subpoena, especially after the administration asserted executive privilege over the documents.
"I just don't see the courts getting into the middle of this," said Stephen Saltzburg, a Georgetown University law professor who worked in the Justice Department under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "Normally it is something that gets worked out between Congress and an executive branch."
The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia could prosecute the contempt citation, but Saltzburg said it is unlikely.
"If they vote along party lines, it will go nowhere," Saltzburg said, adding that it would set the stage for political payback at some point when Democrats retake control of the House.
"All it will do is virtually guarantee that at some point there is some Republican attorney general who would be held in contempt," he said.
The Justice Department has handed over several thousand pages of documents to congressional investigators who began looking into the case after guns involved in the southwest border probe were found at the scene of a firefight in which U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010.
Issa believes the documents being shielded by the executive privilege claim can shed more light on how much top Justice Department officials knew about a misleading February 4, 2011, letter to Congress saying that no guns in "Operation Fast and Furious" were allowed to reach Mexican drug cartels. The department formally withdrew that letter ten months later.
Issa urged the administration to hand over the documents before Thursday's vote. Holder last week offered to hand over some of the documents and brief investigators on others if they would agree that it would satisfy a committee subpoena. Issa rejected the offer.
(Additional reporting By Susan Heavey; Editing by Vicki Allen)