By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said yesterday that he will attempt to cite the White House for criminal contempt of Congress if it does not turn over documents related to the firing of nine federal prosecutors.
"If they don't cooperate, yes, I'd go that far," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "This is very important to the American people."
Leahy's comments raise the stakes in a growing conflict between the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Bush White House, suggesting that the constitutional clash may end up in a court case that could last beyond Bush's tenure as president.
Congressional investigators want testimony, internal e-mails and other documents to clarify what role President Bush's senior staff members played in the Justice Department's removal of nine prosecutors last year. The firings have triggered bipartisan calls for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to resign.
The White House has refused congressional requests for information, asserting executive privilege, a claim invoked since George Washington's time to mean that the separation of powers embodied in the Constitution allows each branch to operate freely from the control or supervision of the others.
In a letter sent last Friday to Leahy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), White House counsel Fred F. Fielding said the privacy of the documents must be respected to ensure that presidential advisers feel free to provide "candid and unfettered advice."
The White House has offered to allow the chairmen private, off-the-record interviews with current and former Bush aides.
But Leahy said yesterday that he sees the documents and public testimony as key to the investigation of alleged political interference by the White House with the nation's judicial system.
"The bottom line on the U.S. attorneys investigation is that we have people manipulating law enforcement," he said. "Law enforcement can't be partisan. Law enforcement can't decide, 'Well, we'll arrest this person because they're a Democrat but not this person because they're a Republican,' or the other way around."
The congressional committees sent subpoenas last month to former White House political director Sara M. Taylor and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and have demanded relevant documents from the White House.
Lawmakers have given the White House until next Monday to provide a signed letter from the president asserting executive privilege, as well as a description of each withheld document, a list of who has seen the documents and the legal basis for arguing that the documents may be shielded from public view.
Leahy's committee last week issued more subpoenas to the White House, Justice Department and vice president's office seeking information about the domestic eavesdropping program run by the National Security Agency.
The next step is for the congressional committee chairman to rule on the validity of the privilege claims. If the claims are deemed invalid, the committee can repeat the directive to comply. If the president continues to refuse, the committee can find the president in criminal contempt, and the issue would go to the full Senate or House. If a majority in either chamber approves the criminal citation, the matter is referred to a U.S. attorney with a recommendation to issue an indictment.