Bush keeps Justice Department papers under wraps
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Since taking office, President Bush has sent a clear message to Congress: Some sensitive information Capitol Hill lawmakers have been used to getting will be off limits.
Bush sent the most powerful part of the message yesterday when he invoked executive privilege to protect the confidentiality of prosecutorial documents Congress has often received in the past.
Kept out of lawmakers' hands are documents pertaining to the FBI's handling of mob informants in Boston in the 1960s and the Clinton-era fund-raising probe of the 1990s.
"This is the beginning of a real constitutional confrontation," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. "I think they ran into the wrong chairman, the wrong committee and maybe the wrong Congress."
The House Government Reform Committee chaired by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., had subpoenaed the Boston material.
"I think it's just a power grab" and "a clever maneuver politically," Catholic University political science professor Mark Rozell said of the president rebuffing congressional demands.
After a prolonged battle, Attorney General Janet Reno turned over much material to the Republican-led Congress from the fund-raising investigation of the Clinton campaign of 1996.
The Bush White House's strategy is "to make a sharp turn to get them back" to where the Republicans think the privilege should properly be, said St. John's University law professor John Barrett.
Rozell said it is disturbing that the White House takes the position that a dispute involving a prosecutorial matter is automatically resolved in the executive's favor.
The Justice Department almost always withholds materials from Congress in ongoing investigations, but in closed probes the need for secrecy is greatly reduced.
Withholding information from Congress has become a White House habit.
The president didn't bother to consult the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman before disclosing his plan for military tribunals. Since last spring, Vice President Dick Cheney has been refusing to disclose his secret energy meetings with power industry executives and lobbyists.
Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questions Bush's position that access to the Justice Department documents would be contrary to the national interest.
"Anything that limits legitimate congressional oversight is very worrisome," Grassley said. "This move needs to be carefully scrutinized, particularly in an atmosphere where Congress is giving the Justice Department additional powers and authority."
At a hearing before Burton's committee, Michael Horowitz, Justice Department criminal division chief of staff, argued that keeping deliberative documents away from Congress would "insulate career line prosecutors and their internal deliberations from political pressure."
"What you have said is extraordinarily insulting," responded Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
"We all think this is stonewalling. It's a terrible, terrible precedent to set," Burton said. "We might be able to go to the (House) floor and take this thing to court."
The full House, controlled by Republicans, would have to vote to find Bush in contempt to start such a court battle.
"The point is if you have corruption in the Justice Department and you let an executive decision stand, you can't root out corruption," Burton said. "This is not a monarchy."
In the Boston case being examined by the committee, Joseph Salvati spent 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, even though the FBI had evidence of his innocence.
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