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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
The White House has waded into a showdown between Republicans in Congress and President Obama's attorney general. Mr. Obama has asserted executive privilege in an effort to maintain the secrecy of potentially embarrassing Justice Department documents. Those documents are related to the agency's handling of the so-called Fast and Furious gun trafficking probe. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is meeting today to vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over this dispute. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following it and she now arrives with us to talk about it. Carrie, welcome.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.
WERTHEIMER: So first, could you just give us a brief fill(ph) on what's at the heart of this fight?
JOHNSON: Sure. Linda, this goes back a few years to a gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious, and the point of this operation, according to the Justice Department and the U.S. government, was to try to build big cases against Mexican drug cartels. Agents wanted to follow guns purchased in Arizona across the border into Mexico and then bring cases against the people in whose hands they found those weapons.
The problem was, the agents lost track of those weapons, nearly 2,000 of them. Many of them later turned up on crime scenes on both sides of the border. Most importantly, the death of a U.S. border patrol agent a couple of years ago - two weapons tied to Fast and Furious were found near his slain body. And that got Congress exercised, and Darrel Issa, a congressman from California, Republican, launched an investigation, as did Senator Charles Grassley, Republican from Iowa. They've been demanding a lot of documents from the Justice Department about what went wrong.
WERTHEIMER: Now - so are Republicans treating this failure by the Justice Department to give them want they want - are they treating that as a cover-up?
JOHNSON: Both Congressman Issa and Senator Grassley seem to think that there's something embarrassing or worse in these thousands of pages of documents the Justice Department is refusing to hand over. Attorney General Eric Holder says there was never any intent to mislead Congress and never any cover-up. This was just a failed operation and the department has more or less come clean about it. However, Issa and Grassley have refused what the Justice Department calls an extraordinary offer for more documents, more briefing, and they want to see everything and they want a list of what they're not getting.
That has been really the bone of contention here. It's worth saying that both Congressman Issa and Congressman Charles Grassley have pursued this investigation, sometimes to the discomfort of members of their own party, who think it's more important for Republicans this year to focus on job creation and job growth rather than Fast and Furious.
WERTHEIMER: Now, top Justice officials went to Capitol Hill late(ph) yesterday to try to resolve - late on Tuesday - to try to resolve this, and that failed. So what happens next?
JOHNSON: Well, the Justice Department has asked the White House to exert executive privilege, as you mentioned. The White House has done so, saying because of the separation of powers, Congress has no - no business getting access to internal deliberations within the Justice Department and the White House over damage control efforts on Fast and Furious.
And we are here right now, where the committee as we speak is meeting and soon likely to vote to hold Eric Holder, the attorney general, in contempt of Congress.
WERTHEIMER: How serious is that for Attorney General Holder, contempt of Congress? What does it mean?
JOHNSON: What it means in the short term is that once the committee votes, the matter still has to be deliberated on by the full House of Representatives. We do expect that to pass. Republicans have the vote. And then what happens, generally in the past has happened, is that the matter then gets referred to the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia for possible prosecution. There's virtually no chance he will move to prosecute Eric Holder. However, this scandal has been a big distraction for Holder, and his Justice Department may have suffered some reputational damage. And Linda, he's been sounding, Eric Holder, like he's more or less done with this job, and we're expecting him to leave after November anyway. At this point there's no hint that he's going to depart any time sooner than that.
WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Carrie.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.