President Bush invoked executive privilege to keep Congress from seeing the FBI report of an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney and other records related to the administration's leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity in 2003.
The president's decision drew a sharp protest Wednesday from Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of House Oversight Committee, which had subpoenaed Attorney General Michael Mukasey to turn over the documents.
"This unfounded assertion of executive privilege does not protect a principle; it protects a person," the California Democrat said. "If the vice president did nothing wrong, what is there to hide?"
Waxman left little doubt he would soon move for a committee vote to hold Mukasey in contempt of Congress.
Bush's assertion of privilege prevented Mukasey from complying with the House subpoena for records bearing on the unmasking of Plame at a time that the administration was trying to rebut criticism from her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, of Bush's rationale for going to war in Iraq.
Cheney's chief of staff in 2003, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was later convicted of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about his role in leaking Plame's name and CIA affiliation to a reporter. Last July, Bush commuted Libby's 2 1/2-year sentence, sparing him from serving prison time.
In grand jury testimony played at his trial, Libby acknowledged he told the FBI early in the Plame probe that "it's possible" he spoke to Cheney about whether to share information with reporters about Wilson's wife.
Other records sought by the House committee include notes about Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, during which he made the case for invading Iraq in part by saying Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was pursuing uranium ore in Africa to make a nuclear weapon. That information not only turned out to be wrong, but in the spring of 2003, Wilson claimed publicly that he had gone to Africa for the CIA to investigate the report and advised the administration it was false months before Bush cited it in the State of the Union speech.
No immediate contempt citation
Waxman held off an immediate contempt citation of Mukasey, but only as a courtesy to lawmakers not present Wednesday and to give all members a chance to read up on the matter. He made clear that he thinks Mukasey, who requested that Bush invoke executive privilege to shield the records, has earned a contempt citation.
"We'll act in the reasonable and appropriate period of time," Waxman said.
In a Tuesday letter to Bush, Mukasey said the assertion of the privilege would not be about hiding anything but rather protecting the separation of powers as well as the integrity of future Justice Department investigations of the White House. Several of the subpoenaed reports, Mukasey wrote, summarize conversations between Bush and advisers.
"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 Bush. "I believe it is legally permissible for you to assert executive privilege with respect to the subpoenaed documents, and I respectfully request that you do so."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote to Mukasey later Wednesday suggesting that the attorney general should have recused himself from the dispute because he is the subject of the subpoena and he gave Bush advice about it.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Bush invoked the privilege on Tuesday.
The Bush administration had plenty of warning. Waxman said last week that he would cite Mukasey for contempt unless the attorney general complied with the subpoena. The House Judiciary Committee also has subpoenaed some of the same documents from Mukasey, as well as information on the leak from other current and former administration officials.
Congressional Democrats want to shed light on the precise roles, if any, that Bush, Cheney and their aides may have played in the leak.
State Department official Richard Armitage first revealed Plame's identity as a CIA operative to columnist Robert Novak, who used former presidential counselor Karl Rove as a confirming source for a 2003 article.