Raising the banner of "executive privilege," the Carter administration yesterday refused to turn over to Congress internal documents hearing on the controversial U.S. vote this month for a United Nations resolution condemning Israel.
The State Department took stand in response to a broad "resolution of inquiry" that was taken up yesterday afternoon by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Introduced by three House members who can take it to the House floor unless the committee acts on it, the resolution calls on the president to furnish the House of Representatives with all notes, documents, memoranda, and other items in his possession and control" concerning the U.N. vote and President Carter's subsequent labeling of it as a "mistake."
Asked for the administration's position Assistant Secretary of State J. Brian Atwood informed the committee that much of the requested information "falls into the category of advice provided to the president and discussions between the president and his senior advisers during the decision-making process."
All of it, whether written or exchanged orally, "relates to the conduct of sensitive consultations in the conduct of our foreign relations, a field entitled to the highest category of executive privilege," Atwood continued in a three-page letter. He said "we cannot provide information of this type."
Only the president can directly invoke executive privilege, but Atwood's letter indicated that Carter plans to do so if the resolution of inquiry should be adopted.
Seeking to head off a confrontation, committee Chairman Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.) said he would seek a secret session next week with Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance to explore the still unanswered questions raised by the March 1 U.N. vote and the president's disclaimer on March 3.
In a related action, the administration yesterday deplored Israel's expropriation of 1,000 acres of Arab-owned land near Jerusalem as part of a campaign to close a circle of Jewish suburbs around the city.
Referring to the expropriated land in the disputed West Bank territory under Israeli occupation, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said: "Our position has consistently been that the future of the occupied areas must be settled in the course of the negotiations for a comprehensive peace. It is of utmost importance to avoid any unilateral action which undermines these delicate negotiations or prejudes their outcome."
In his letter to Zablocki, Atwood voiced fears that public debate over the U.S. vote could lead to further complications in the talks between Israel and Egypt. "It is our fervent desire that a public inquiry not divert us from our overriding objective, the search for peace in the Middle East," he said.
The State Department letter, however, touched off a stream of criticism, both from committee members and from the sponsors of the resolution of inquiry, Reps. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), and Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.).
Holtzman was especially critical of an assertion by Atwood that the U.S. vote in the U.N. Security Council, calling for the dismantling of existing Israeli settlements in West Bank territory, "does not represent a change in our position in the occupied areas or the status of Jerusalem." She called the U.S. action "a shameful act" and "an abrupt departure from prior votes and policies."
A member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted to Impeach President Nixon, Holtzman recalled that the executive privilege doctrine was used then "to hide embarrassing actions" and voiced fears of its being so used again.
Zablocki also sought to deflect calls for other witnesses, such as U.N. Ambassador Donald McHenry, in addition to Vance.
"Ambassador Donald McHenry is a friend of mine and I wouldn't want to do that to him," Zablcoki said. Pressed on the point, he said he would ask Vance "if he wants to have Donald McHenry hold his [Vance's] hand while he [Vance] testifies."
In criticizing the latest Israeli land expropriation, the State Department sought to underscore that its action was not inconsistent with the president's disavowal of the U.S. vote on the U.N. resolution.
Carter's publicly stated reason for his U-turn on the U.N. resolution was that, because of a "failure in communications," the United States did not realize the text referred to East Jerusalem as occupied territory. Although U.S. officials will not say no publicly, Carter is known to have promised the Israelis during the Camp David negotiations not to discuss U.S. views on the current status of Jerusalem in public.
However, the United States is on record as opposing Israeli settlements or land seizures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories seized respectively from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war. Establishment of Jewish settlements in these areas is regarded throughout the Arab world as an Israeli attempt at creeping annexation.
The 1,000 acres involved in the latest dispute lie outside the pre-1967 boundaries of East Jerusalem but are within the confines of what Israel defines as the greater Jerusalem area. However, U.S. officials said they consider the land to be part of the West Bank and within the scope of what the United States regards as occupied Arab territory.