The privileged executive

As Bush’s legacy burns in Iraq, the stonewalling begins again at home.

This week, President George W. Bush announced he would not honor the subpoenas issued by Congress or allow any former White House aides to testify regarding the political firing of federal prosecutors last year. President Bush has asserted that executive privilege puts him above the law as it applies to every other American. Executive privilege, according to its supporters, entitles a president to speak with his advisers candidly without having to fear that their conversations will later be scrutinized.

This nifty tactic to avoid congressional oversight is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, and while the Supreme Court has recognized executive privilege, the last time the court addressed it was in 1974, when President Richard Nixon hid behind it in refusing to release his secret tapes to the Watergate prosecutor. The court ruled 8-0 that while the privilege did exist, it had to be balanced with other interests, and that the Watergate investigation was more important than executive privilege.

If the Congress decides to hold President Bush in contempt, the issue could eventually be put before the Supreme Court once again. While the attorneys’ scandal is, for most people, yesterday’s news, we will never know how high up the scandal went unless Congress can proceed with its investigation. No one thought that a bungled burglary at a Washington hotel would lead to something that could bring down a president, but it did. We owe it to history to get to the bottom of who knew what about the attorney firings and how a supposedly nonpartisan Justice Department was being used for political purposes.

We agree that in some instances executive privilege might be necessary for a president to receive all the information he needs to make a decision, but this “Nixonian stonewalling,” as it’s being called, is really just an attempt to protect whatever tattered remains are left of Bush’s legacy. As his approval ratings spiral further into the abyss, the president probably won’t feel the urge to change his tactics of obstruction. One gets the sense that, like most Americans, President Bush wishes that his time in office was over, so he could go back to the ranch. No one is stopping him.