The US Justice Department said it would not prosecute Attorney General Eric Holder over his refusal to hand over documents on a botched gun-running operation to Congress, even after the House of Representatives held him in contempt.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the Justice Department had "determined that the attorney general's response to the subpoena issued by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform does not constitute a crime."
"Therefore the department will not bring the congressional contempt citation before a grand jury or take any other action to prosecute the attorney general," Cole wrote.
Justifying his refusal, Cole cited a "longstanding position" of the Justice Department not to prosecute officials for withholding documents "pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege."
Cole reminded Boehner that former Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had asserted the same privilege in their dealings with Congress.
The refusal came after US lawmakers on Thursday took the historic and controversial step of holding Holder in contempt over the gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious.
Launched in Arizona by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Fast and Furious was a sting operation designed to track weapons purchased by straw buyers and smuggled to Mexican drug cartels.
But many of the guns went missing, and two were later found at the murder scene of a US border patrol agent.
Republican Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform which led the investigation, is seeking to discover who in the government knew about the operation and when, and whether there was a cover-up.
Holder has testified about the scandal nine times and turned over 7,600 documents, but Issa says that is less than 10 percent of what was being sought.
Issa is after material that shows why Holder's department retracted as inaccurate a February 2011 letter to lawmakers that said senior officials were unaware of Fast and Furious -- and why the retraction took 10 months.
The contempt resolution was adopted 255-67 in the Republican-led House. Several dozen Democrats refused to participate, while 17 in Obama's party voted to find the nation's top justice official in criminal contempt.
The move paves the way for legal action over a probe into Fast and Furious, and Holder's failure to turn over internal Justice Department documents and emails sought through subpoena by a congressional panel conducting the investigation.
The House also passed a civil contempt resolution, which would authorize the panel to sue the Justice Department in federal court over the documents.
The contempt finding, the first for a sitting member of a president's cabinet, was immediately branded by the White House as a "transparently political stunt."
But Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said Obama and the White House "have failed to live up to their promises of openness and transparency, and voters will surely hold them accountable in November."