(USA TODAY) -- President Obama is claiming executive privilege in refusing to give certain documents to Congress concerning the "Fast and Furious" operation.

The Justice Department requested that Obama assert the privilege in refusing to turn certain documents over to Congress concerning the botched gun-smuggling operation.

The news comes as House Republicans consider holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over the Fast and Furious dispute.

In a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a Justice Department official said executive privilege applies to documents that explain how the department learned of problems with the investigation.

"I write now to inform you that the President has asserted executive privilege over the relevant post-February 4, 2011, documents," writes Deputy Attorney General James Cole. "We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the Committee's concerns and to accommodate the Committee's legitimate oversight interests regarding Operation Fast and Furious."

Republicans said they are stunned by the president's move, while Democrats on the oversight committee accused GOP lawmakers of carrying out a political witch hunt.

"The president's assertion of executive privilege creates more questions," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. "That brings into question whether Eric Holder knew about it and how much the president knew about it."

The White House made the move after Issa and Holder met late Tuesday evening for about 20 minutes in an unsuccessful, last-minute effort to head off today's hearing to consider whether to hold Holder in contempt. Holder told reporters following the meeting that he offered to provide the documents on the condition that Issa gave his assurance that doing so would satisfy two committee subpoenas and resolve the dispute.

Issa is particularly interested in seeing documents that shed light on why the Department of Justice decided to withdraw a February 2011 letter sent to Congress denying allegations of gunwalking.

Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, noted that the Justice Department had already turned over more than 1,000 pages of documents and questioned Issa's motives.

"It seems clear that you had no interest in resolving this issue, and that the Committee planned to go forward with contempt before we walked into the meeting with the Attorney General," Cummings said.

The investigation into the operation was spurred after Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, inquired into whistle-blower allegations that the government had allowed the transfer of illegally purchased weapons that were found at the scene of the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

Grassley slammed the White House on Wednesday for the move.

"How can the president assert executive privilege if there was no White House involvement?" Grassley said in a statement. "How can the president exert executive privilege over documents he's supposedly never seen? Is something very big being hidden to go to this extreme?"

Contributing: Aamer Madhani

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