By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008
The White House yesterday blocked a House committee's attempt to obtain internal FBI reports about the leak of a CIA officer's identity, asserting that notes from interviews of Vice President Cheney and other administration officials are protected by executive privilege.
The move further escalates the conflict between President Bush and the House Government Reform Committee, which had issued a subpoena to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in an attempt to get the records.
Cheney and other officials were interviewed as part of a probe by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald into the leak of the identity of former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson. The investigation eventually resulted in the conviction of Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the panel's chairman, said yesterday that Bush's claim of executive privilege in the case is "ludicrous" and vowed to move ahead with a contempt citation against Mukasey.
"This unfounded assertion of executive privilege does not protect a principle; it protects a person," Waxman said. "If the vice president did nothing wrong, what is there to hide?"
But in a letter to Bush released by Waxman's committee, Mukasey argued that some of the reports include summaries of conversations between Bush and his aides, which are covered by executive privilege. Mukasey also warned that releasing such documents could imperil future Justice Department probes.
"I am greatly concerned about the chilling effect that compliance with the committee's subpoena would have on future White House deliberations and White House cooperation with future Justice Department investigations," Mukasey wrote.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Bush relied on Mukasey's advice in deciding to invoke the privilege.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mukasey had a conflict of interest in offering a legal opinion because the information request was directed at him.
Wilson's identity was leaked as part of an effort by senior administration officials to discredit her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was publicly critical of Bush's justifications for going to war in Iraq. Democrats are seeking documents from the case in hopes of determining whether Bush, Cheney or other senior officials played a direct role in the breach.
The Wilsons criticized Bush's decision and said they will continue to pursue a civil lawsuit against the government.
"We seek to hold those public officials responsible for this serious breach of national security accountable for their actions, and to ensure that future generations of public servants are not tempted to engage in similarly despicable behavior," the couple said in a statement.
Fitzgerald's inquiry revealed that State Department official Richard L. Armitage first revealed Plame's identity as a CIA operative to columnist Robert D. Novak, who then used former presidential adviser Karl Rove as a confirming source for a 2003 column at the heart of the case. Libby, whose prison sentence was commuted by Bush, also told the FBI that it was possible that Cheney ordered him to reveal Plame's identity to reporters.
The standoff over the Cheney records is the latest in a series of conflicts between the Bush administration and congressional Democrats over internal White House records.
The Bush administration has invoked executive privilege in four cases since 2001, including the leak probe, according to the White House. Earlier this year, the House voted to hold former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten in contempt of Congress for not providing testimony and documents related to firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.
As part of a separate dispute yesterday, two top Senate Democrats asked the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to testify about the administration's refusal to turn over documents related to public health risks associated with global warming.