On June 20, 2012, President Barack Obama escalated a battle with the GOP-controlled House of Representatives by claiming executive privilege for 1300 executive-branch documents that relate to the White House and the Justice Department’s response to subpoenas about the botched Fast and Furious gun-trafficking operation.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) then voted immediately along party lines to approve a contempt of Congress finding against Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. That recommendation is expected to go to the full House next week.
The committee asserts that it needs the documents in its investigation of Fast and Furious and of a possible executive-branch cover-up of that operation. The White House replies that handing over the documents would hamper the ability of government officials to discuss policy matters frankly and without fear that their deliberations would become public.
Confrontations between the President and Congress over documents and over claims of executive privilege are not new. In fact, executive privilege has been claimed by every president since President John F. Kennedy, and the roots of the doctrine go back to actions by President George Washington in 1792.
The privilege to withhold documents from a congressional committee is not found in the Constitution. It is, however, based on the constitutional principle of separation of powers, which provides that the three branches operate independently of each other. Although the Supreme Court rejected the application of executive privilege in 1974 when President Richard Nixon claimed it in relation to a criminal subpoena for Watergate tapes, there is no question that the privilege exists and can be properly claimed under some circumstances.
The problem is that Obama and Holder are claiming the privilege broadly, for all 1300 pages of documents, without specifying why each document or group of documents is privileged.
As Todd Gaziano, a former attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which advises on executive privilege, wrote in the Heritage Foundation’s blog:
Even if properly involved, the Supreme Court has made clear that executive privilege is not absolute. DOJ must provide an explanation why all those documents fit one of the recognized categories of executive privilege. It is questionable whether they all are legitimately subject to executive privilege, for several reasons. First, the Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon (1974) held that executive privilege cannot be invoked at all if the purpose is to shield wrongdoing. . . . Congress needs to get to the bottom of that question to prevent an illegal invocation of executive privilege and further abuses of power. That will require an index of the withheld documents and an explanation of why each of them is covered by executive privilege—and more. Second, even the “deliberative process” species of executive privilege, which is reasonably broad, does not shield the ultimate decisions from congressional inquiry. Congress is entitled to at least some documents and other information that indicate who the ultimate decision maker was for this disastrous program and why these decisions were made.
At the very least, the Administration owes Congress and the American people a better explanation of what it is doing and why.