A federal judge said Thursday she is leaning toward allowing President Barack Obama's claim of executive privilege in Operation Fast and Furious, the failed law enforcement operation at the center of a congressional investigation and subpoena fight between the Justice Department and House Republicans.
At a hearing, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson cautioned that she has not decided how she will rule in the case.
But she said she regards the executive privilege claim as qualified. That view could result in some Justice Department records that House Republicans want remaining confidential, while others might be subject to public disclosure.
Lawyers for the House and the White House argued the case before Jackson. She flayed both sides, chiding the lawyers for turning in legal filings that she called "distressing" for their "vituperative" tone and saying the hearing would not turn into a "press conference."
Ultimately, Jackson will rule on whether the president's privilege claim trumps the congressional subpoena.
In an earlier chapter in the Fast and Furious saga, Republicans led by Rep. Darrell Issa of California made Attorney General Eric Holder the first Cabinet member ever to be held in contempt of Congress over his refusal to provide the documents.
Now in what may be the waning months of Holder's tenure as attorney general, the Issa-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is hunting for information that might explain why it took the Justice Department nearly a year to admit that federal agents in Operation Fast and Furious engaged in a prohibited law enforcement tactic known as gun-walking.
The Arizona office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives permitted illicitly purchased weapons to be transported unimpeded in an effort to track them to high-level arms traffickers shipping guns to Mexican drug cartels.
Federal agents lost control of some 2,000 weapons, many of which wound up at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S. Two of the guns that had been allowed to "walk" were found at the scene of the slaying of a U.S. border agent, Brian Terry, whose death in December 2010 resulted in some of the agents blowing the whistle to Congress about the prohibited tactic.