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Senate judiciary panel approves contempt citations against White House aides

[JURIST] The US Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-7 Thursday to report contempt of Congress resolutions [press release] to the full Senate for White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove [resolution texts] over their refusal to testify before the committee as part of its investigation into the US Attorneys firing scandal [JURIST news archive]. Late last month, committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) issued a ruling [text and press release; JURIST report] rejecting the Bush administration's assertions of executive privilege as a basis for avoiding subpoenas and directing the White House to comply with formal committee subpoenas [JURIST report]. In his opening statement [text] at Thursday's committee meeting, Leahy said:

The White House' blanket claims of executive privilege and immunity are insufficient to excuse current and former White House employees from appearing, testifying and producing documents related to this Committee's investigation. Having been directed to comply with the Committees' subpoenas, they have not done so and now we must take the next steps to enforce the Committee's subpoenas. This is not a step I have wanted to take - in fact, I have tried for many months to find ways to work with the White House and avoid a confrontation.

The President has not accepted responsibility for the firings or given any indication that he was involved in White House efforts to politicize federal law enforcement. Instead, the White House line is that "mistakes were made." Apparently no one, least of all the President, is responsible, yet somehow executive privilege supposedly applies to cloak all White House activities and communication in regards to these firings affecting the independence and integrity of federal law enforcement from oversight.

The White House counsel asserts that executive privilege covers all documents and information in the possession of the White House. They have gone further and claimed absolute immunity even to have to appear and respond to this Committee's subpoenas for Mr. Rove and Mr. Bolten. And they contend that their blanket claim of privilege cannot be tested but must be accepted by the Congress as the last word. Their views of the unitary and all powerful Executive know no bounds.

The position taken by this White House in refusing to turn over documents or allow White House officials and former officials to testify is a dramatic break from the practices of every administration since World War II in responding to congressional oversight. In that time, presidential advisers have testified before congressional committees 74 times, either voluntarily or compelled by subpoenas.

Executive privilege should not be invoked to prevent investigations into wrongdoing, and certainly should not prevail. These resolutions are an effort to provide a fuller account and accountability. We should act to protect Congress' ability to conduct oversight and the right of the American people to learn the whole truth about the U.S. Attorney firings.
If the full Senate were to approve the contempt citations, the citations would forwarded to the US Justice Department for prosecution.

Bolten, along with former White House counsel Harriet Miers, also faces possible contempt charges [JURIST report] for refusing to testify before the House Judiciary Committee or produce documents relating to the US Attorney firings. The House panel voted [JURIST report] in July to issue contempt of Congress citations [backgrounder; 2 USC Sec. 192]. The House has not yet voted on whether to sanction Bolten and Miers for their refusal to comply with the subpoenas. Reuters has more.

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