The White House's limited offer of documents and interviews in the controversial firing of U.S. attorneys fits its track record of secrecy.
From the time he walked into the Oval Office, President Bush has tried to tighten the government's hold on information and restrict public scrutiny. He says he's defending the executive branch from encroachment by overzealous lawmakers and needs to make sure that he and the presidents who follow him have the chance to get confidential advice from advisers.
That push to strengthen the powers of the presidency and clamp down on public disclosure, however, is now contributing to lawmakers' wariness of the White House's latest offer in the U.S. attorney dispute.
Penchant for secrecy bolsters Dems
"There is no doubt that the Democrats in Congress are strengthened by their perception of public opinion, which appears to be that the White House has not been forthcoming on this and other issues," said Karl Racine, a former associate White House counsel who advised President Clinton and members of his staff on civil and criminal investigation matters.
Critics of the Bush White House's penchant toward secrecy point to: Bush's executive order restricting the public release of the papers of past presidents; his move just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to clamp down on the declassification of government documents; and the fight, all the way to the Supreme Court, to keep secret closed-door meetings of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.
They criticize Bush's refusal to allow then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the panel investigating the 9/11 attacks (though he eventually relented in the face of bipartisan pressure). And they disapprove of Bush authorizing programs to eavesdrop on Americans' international communications with suspected terrorists without warrants. He acknowledged them only after news reports revealed their existence.
Take-it-or-leave-it White House
"I think the White House is now reaping what it has sowed by its high-handed approach to congressional requests for information," said Steven Aftergood, who runs the government secrecy project for the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.
Bush has made what the White House describes as a take-it-or-leave-it, final offer to resolve the standoff over whether eight U.S. attorneys were improperly fired - or for political reasons, as some Democrats suggest.
In what he called a very reasonable proposal, the president offered to make key aides available for private interviews not conducted under oath or transcribed. He also said he would release all White House documents and e-mails involving direct communications with the Justice Department or any outside person, including members of Congress, on this issue.
Demanding fuller disclosure, Democrats want Bush advisers to answer questions publicly, under oath, and provide in-house documents, not just communications between White House and non-West Wingers.
Congress is going to have access to all the facts, "so I don't understand how that's stonewalling," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday in response to Democratic criticism.
Democrats fight back
So far, Congress is not buying Bush's argument. A House subcommittee authorized subpoenas for political adviser Karl Rove and other top White House aides. A Senate committee is ready to follow suit on Thursday.
"I believe that we are seeing the result of years of accumulated anger and frustration by members of both parties with the administration," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.
Last week, the House voted to limit no-bid federal contracts, alleging abuses and citing huge losses in contracts for Hurricane Katrina recovery and Iraq reconstruction. The Accountability in Contracting Act was the last of five open-government bills the House passed this week under new Democratic leaders critical of what they say has been the closed and secretive nature of the Bush administration.
The other measures would:
- Require that contributors to the Bush presidential library make their donations public.
- Overturn a directive by Bush making it easier for current and former presidents to withhold their records from historians and the public.
- Give the public and the media more clout in getting sometimes-reluctant federal agencies to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.
- Expand whistle-blower protections, specifically for national security officials, airport screeners and government scientists who say they experience political pressure or retaliation because of their research.
The White House has threatened vetoes if the presidential records or the whistle-blower bills reach Bush's desk.
Fights between Congress and the president's prerogative to get unfettered advise from advisers are not new.
In 1974, President Nixon tried to use executive privilege to avoid turning over his secret White House tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor. The Supreme Court ruled against Nixon, who later resigned when impeachment seemed imminent.
Clinton invoked or threatened to assert executive privilege during the Monica Lewinsky investigation, impeachment and other matters. He also invoked executive privilege to block documents sought by the independent counsel investigating Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. During the perjury and obstruction probe of the president that led to his impeachment, Clinton considered and dropped a variety of privilege claims. They were thought unlikely to stand up in court.
The round with this president has just begun.
"We're going to keep plugging away and not be hindered by the president throwing up these roadblocks for his buddy Karl Rove," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.