President Barack Obama today asserted executive privilege over documents long sought by Congress in the investigation of the “Fast and Furious” operation. The assertion in my view is facially overbroad and excessive. It is the latest example of sweeping claims of executive power and privilege by this Administration. Congress has ample reason to investigate this operation, which involves alleged criminal acts that may have resulted in the death of third parties, including a U.S. agent. The Justice Department is accused of complicity in one of the most ill-conceived and harmful operations in recent years. The very officials and agency accused of wrongdoing is claiming that it can withhold documents from a committee with oversight responsibilities.
The position of the Justice Department on the issue seems hopelessly conflicted. On one hand, the White House and Justice Department have stressed that Obama did not review these documents to protect him from the political backlash over the operation. Yet, it is claiming sweeping privilege over Justice Department documents. It is precisely the type of executive privilege claim that many of us denounced during the Bush Administration. The Administration is left with deliberative process rather than a presidential communication privilege since these documents were not “solicited and received” by the President
In a letter by Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the Justice Department refused to turn over the documents on the basis of privilege. The letter was delivered shortly before a scheduled contempt vote. The full House would have to approve the measure for Holder to be held in contempt.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on Wednesday informing him that the president has granted the request.
The documents were written from February 2011 and afterward detailing how Justice officials learned about the Fast and Furious probe. Holder insists that they fall within the “deliberative process” privilege. The position however could sharply curtail the ability of Congress to be a check and balance in such controversies. Any documents prepared in response to such a controversy would be viewed as deliberative process. This claim is generally used in discovery in civil litigations and Freedom of Information Act requests. It is the most frequently invoked executive privilege in the federal courts. However, the documents must be both “predecisional” as well as “deliberative.”
The use of the privilege in my view raises serious questions over the separation of powers in the tripartite system. The deliberative process privilege is not constitutionally based and “disappears altogether when there is any reason to believe government misconduct [has] occurred.” In re Sealed Case (Espy), 121 F.3d 729, 745 (D.C. Cir. 1997).
The Justice Department has long tried to expand the deliberative process privilege to allow it the same sweeping protections that come with presidential communications. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the notion that agency employees are chilled by congressional inquiries in NLRB v. Sears, Roebuck & Co:
The probability that the agency employee will be inhibited from freely advising a decisionmaker for fear that his advice if adopted, will become public is slight. First, when adopted, the reasoning becomes that of the agency and becomes its responsibility to defend. Second, agency employees will generally be encouraged rather than discouraged by public knowledge that their policy suggestions have been adopted by the agency. Moreover, the public interest in knowing the reasons for a policy actually adopted by an agency supports [disclosure].
My greatest concern rests with the impact on checks and balances in a system already left anemic by ever-expanding claims of executive power.
Source: ABA Journal