More on Contempt of Congress

June 16, 2017–Today’s New York Times responds directly to the posts here yesterday and two days ago (“Obstruction Starts to Come into Focus,” June 15; “Jeff Sessions’ Looking Glass,” June 14) about contempt of Congress. Correspondent Charlie Savage enlightens us on the details (his article is titled “On Executive Privilege and Sessions’ Refusal to Answer Questions”). Justice Department officials dragged up two pieces of paper to show an explicit claim to–let’s call it “potential-presumptive executive privilege,” where the president had asserted no such claim but the individual resisting answering an inquiry uses it as authority to refuse an answer.

Both these documents date from 1982. Only one was presidential–President Ronald Reagan signed a directive in November 1982 governing response procedures for “this administration.” On the face of it Reagan’s assertion had no power on any other president. Moreover, the “policy” was swept away in the Iran-Contra Affair.

The second document was a paper from Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), an August 1982 memo titled “Confidentiality of the Attorney General’s Communications in Counseling the President.” The OLC paper carved out a legal argument for presumptive privilege, but, Charlie Savage reports, it never addressed to the specifics of refusing to answer questions when under oath. OLC is also the entity that produced the notorious “torture memos” of the George W. Bush administration. There are two points to make here. First, here is a fresh example of why OLC papers are way overvalued when people attribute the power of court opinions to them. Second, the Reagan-era OLC opinion had no weight after January 1989. Other administrations needed to have joined with Reagan to make this a “longstanding policy.” Bottom Line: there is no such authority.

The Times also refers to an event of the Obama presidency as another exercise of the “potential privilege” power. This came during the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program, when agency officers hacked Senate committee computers and removed 10,000 pages of documents from them which the CIA had previously furnished to the Senate. (You will be able to read much more about this episode in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley [New Press].) Savage describes this material as “notes of briefings and [White House] Situation Room meetings.” If so, the outrage is magnified, since the CIA itself declassified notes of these types to its own officers for them to use in an effort to discredit the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture. That kind of self-dealing is unacceptable.

Mr. Davidson referred to–and journalist Savage reported–the practice of halting testimony with a point of order and asking the committee chairman to overrule the witness. This has not happened in Davidson’s experience. But there was plenty of that in Congress right through the 1970s. This is the time to bring back an old practice. As I said in this space two days ago, by not enforcing its authority the Senate intelligence committee here is helping to kill democracy in America.