WASHINGTON — The Justice Department declared Friday that Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to withhold information about a bungled gun-tracking operation from Congress does not constitute a crime and he won't be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.

The House voted Thursday afternoon to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt for refusing to turn over the documents. President Barack Obama invoked his executive privilege authority and ordered Holder not to turn over materials about executive branch deliberations and internal recommendations.

In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, the department said that it will not bring the congressional contempt citation against Holder to a federal grand jury and that it will take no other action to prosecute the attorney general. Dated Thursday, the letter was released Friday.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the decision is in line with long-standing Justice Department practice across administrations of both political parties.

"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," Cole wrote.

In its letter, the department relied in large part on a Justice Department legal opinion crafted during Republican Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Frederick Hill, the spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, said it is regrettable that "the political leadership of the Justice Department" is taking that position. Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, is leading the effort to get the material related to Operation Fast and Furious.

Although the House voted Thursday to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt, Republicans probably are still a long way from obtaining documents they want for their inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-tracking investigation focused on Phoenix-area gun shops by Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The criminal path is now closed and the civil route through the courts would not be resolved anytime soon.

"This is pure politics," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

"Remarkably the chairman of the committee involved here has asserted that he has no evidence that the attorney general knew of Operation Fast and Furious or did anything but take the right action when he learned of it.

"No evidence, so if you have no evidence as he has stated now about the White House and the attorney general, what else could this be but politics?"

More than 100 Democrats walked out of the House chamber to boycott the first of two contempt votes, saying Republicans were more interested in shameful election-year politics than documents.

Republicans demanded the documents for an ongoing investigation, but their arguments focused more on the need for closure for the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two guns identified by the Fast and Furious tracking operation were found near his body after a shootout in Arizona.

Democrats promised closure as well, but said a less-partisan Republican investigation was the only way to get it.

Adding to the emotion of the day, the family of the slain agent issued a statement backing the Republicans.

"The Terry family takes no pleasure in the contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. Such a vote should not have been necessary. The Justice Department should have released the documents related to Fast and Furious months ago," the statement said.

The contempt votes happened on the day that Obama's health care law survived in the Supreme Court, prompting some Democrats to speculate that the votes were scheduled to be overwhelmed by news stories about the ruling.

About five hours after the court ruled, with news sites flooded with information about the health care ruling, the House voted 255-67 to declare Holder in criminal contempt.

A second vote of 258-95 held Holder in civil contempt and authorized the House to file a lawsuit.

In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.

The issue became more complicated when Obama invoked a broad form of executive privilege, a legal doctrine designed to keep private certain communications of executive branch agencies.

Issa's committee will consult with the House counsel's office about a court challenge to the administration's decision not to cooperate, spokesman Frederick Hill said.

The documents were written after Fast and Furious was shut down. The subpoena covered a 10-month period from February 2011, as the Justice Department expressed growing concern that the Fast and Furious operation had employed a risky investigative tactic known as "gun-walking." In early December 2011, the department finally acknowledged that the initial denial of gun-walking was in error.

Republicans said the contempt citations were necessary because Holder refused to hand over documents that could explain why the Obama administration took 10 months to acknowledge the gun-walking.

In Fast and Furious, ATF agents abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased, often as soon as they were taken out of gun shops. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as "gun-walking" was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers, who had long eluded prosecution, and to dismantle their networks.

Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Operation Fast and Furious. These experiments came as the department was under widespread criticism that the old policy of arresting every suspected low-level "straw purchaser" was failing to stop tens of thousands of guns from reaching Mexico, more than 68,000 in the last five years. A straw purchaser conceals that he is buying guns for others.

Fast and Furious identified more than 2,000 weapons suspected of being illicitly purchased. But agents lost track of many of the guns. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered.

Loading Slideshow...
  • From left, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Md., Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep, Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, and many House Democrats walk out of the Capitol during the vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, Thursday, June 28, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, and the committee's ranking Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., go to the House Rules Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, to argue procedures as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on whether Attorney General Eric Holder is in contempt of Congress because he has refused to give the Oversight Committee all the documents it wants related to Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed gun-smuggling probe involving Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., left, stretches out her hand to get the attention of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as the panel considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, sits between them. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) (C) talks with raking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (L) during a mark up hearing on Capitol Hill June 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Issa and the committee Republicans called the hearing to vote on holding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents the GOP says are key to their investigation into the failed Fast and Furious operation. Before the start of the hearing, the White House asserted the documents are protected by executive privilidge. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., center, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, confers with an aide as the panel considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, second from left, speaks with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who authored an amendment in support of Holder. In a showdown with President Barack Obama's administration, House Republicans had pressed for more Justice Department documents on the flawed gun-smuggling probe known as Operation Fast and Furious that resulted in hundreds of guns illicitly purchased in Arizona gun shops winding up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, center, debates Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., right, considers whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, speaks at left. In a showdown with President Barack Obama's administration, House Republicans are pressing for more Justice Department documents on the flawed gun-smuggling probe known as Operation Fast and Furious that resulted in hundreds of guns illicitly purchased in Arizona gun shops winding up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: House Oversight and Government Reform raking member U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) (R) hears from U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) during a mark up hearing with June 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and the committee Republicans called the hearing to vote on holding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents the GOP says are key to their investigation into the failed Fast and Furious operation. Before the start of the hearing, the White House asserted the documents are protected by executive privilidge. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • Attorney General Eric holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Rep. Issa met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., speaks to reporters following his meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Issa met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. Holder wants a House panel to drop plans to try to hold him in contempt of Congress, and the panel's chairman wants more Justice Department documents regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-smuggling probe in Arizona. Holder and Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, met in an effort to resolve their dispute over the investigation of Fast and Furious by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Issa chairs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • Attorney General Eric Holder walks through Statuary Hall to speak to reporters following his meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

  • FILE -In this Dec. 8, 2011 file photo, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, shakes hands with Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington. Holder is proposing to meet with Issa by Monday to settle a dispute over Justice Department documents the congressman is demanding on a flawed gun-smuggling probe. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)