Attorney General says contempt citation unwarranted

COPENHAGEN/WASHINGTON Fri Jun 22, 2012 2:07am IST

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listens to a question as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington June 12, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listens to a question as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington June 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

COPENHAGEN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday dismissed as unwarranted a vote by a U.S. congressional committee to charge him with contempt of Congress after the Obama administration withheld documents related to a failed gun-running investigation.

"The action that the committee took yesterday was unwarranted, unnecessary and unprecedented," he said after meeting European Union justice officials in the Danish capital.

The contempt move comes after the Obama administration asserted executive privilege as its reason for withholding some of the documents requested by the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

It set up yet another confrontation between Democratic President Barack Obama and the House, intensifying the bitter partisanship that has prevailed in Washington since just after Obama took office.

The botched operation was meant to help U.S. law enforcement agents follow the flow of guns from Arizona into Mexico, but they lost track of many of the weapons, which later were involved in crimes.

Holder told a news conference he remained optimistic the conflict with the committee could still be resolved on the basis of the administration's proposal.

"We put before the committee a proposal that would have allowed for the resolution of that matter consistent with the way in which these have been resolved in the past, through negotiation," he said.

"I think that the possibility still exists that it can happen in that way," he said. "The House leadership has to consider now what they will do, so we'll see how it works out."

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner accused the White House of covering something up.

"The decision to invoke executive privilege is an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and have covered up the truth," he said.

"The American people deserve the truth, and the administration has an obligation to turn over the relevant documents right now."

White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the administration was hiding anything and said the president had full confidence in Holder.

"We certainly would like to resolve this if there is a good-faith desire to resolve it on the part of House Republicans," Carney said, chiding lawmakers for spending time on the issue rather than focusing on job creation measures.

"Given the economic challenges facing the country, we believe House Republicans should instead be engaged in efforts to create jobs and grow the economy, rather than political theater."

In theory, an official charged with contempt could be punished with a fine or jail, but no one expects it to come to that. Weeks or months of controversy feeding into the presidential election campaign is the more likely result.

(Reporting by John Acher in Copenhagen and Jeff Mason and Thomas Ferraro in Washington; Editing by Vicki Allen)