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White House: Holder won't be prosecuted for contempt

House votes to hold Holder in contempt of Congress
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over all documents related to the gun-walking operation "Fast and Furious." Scott Pelley reports.

Updated 4:00 p.m. ET

(CBS News) One day after the House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents relating to the Fast and Furious gunwalking program, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said the criminal prosecution of the contempt charges will not move forward.

"The prosecution will not take place in this circumstance," Carney said during a press gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Colorado. He said the president's assertion of executive privilege over the related documents makes the matter moot.

The contempt charge does not address the controversial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Fast and Furious operation itself, which allowed more than 2,000 weapons to fall into the hands of suspected traffickers for Mexican drug cartels. Instead, it concerns subpoenaed documents the Justice Department is withholding from Congress that cover a period after the operation ended.

In a letter sent to the House Speaker John Boehner, Deputy Attorney General James Cole confirmed that Justice would not move forward with contempt prosecution.

"Across administrations of both political parties, the longstanding position of the Department of Justice has been and remains that we will not prosecute an Executive Branch official under the contempt of Congress statute for withholding subpoenaed documents pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege," the letter read.

The letter sighted the same justification used when the House brought contempt charges on two Bush administration officials.

Stan Brand, partner at Brand Law Group, told CBS News that attorneys general for the past three decades have interpreted the president's use of executive privilege as both a way to protect information and a way to protect against possible criminal charges.

The Justice Department is responsible for opening a criminal contempt case. Since Holder heads that department, it was widely suspected that the department would not move forward with prosecution.

Carney offered his support of Holder, saying he will continue "his excellent work" as attorney general. Carney added that the entire proceeding is "pure politics." This is the first time the House of Representatives has found a cabinet member in contempt.

Complete coverage of Fast and Furious

In addition to the criminal contempt charges, the House also voted on Thursday on civil contempt charges. The civil charges could head to federal court where it would go through the normal rules and procedures and could take years to litigate.

The court could rule that Holder has to comply with the House's demands in providing the documents, comply in part or not at all.

When Democrats voted in 2008 to hold President George W. Bush's White House counsel Harriet Miers and chief-of-staff Josh Bolton in contempt, the courts ruled on the case after Mr. Bush had already left office.

Holder has testified before Congress nine times and turned over thousands of pages of documents. But Republicans investigating the scandal say the answers to many outstanding questions could lie in tens of thousands of pages of documents the Justice Department has declined to turn over, under the claim that they're part of the internal deliberative process or ongoing investigations.

Reporting by CBS News Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller

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