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White House Rejects Subpoenas in Attorney Firings

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's an update on a growing legal dispute between Congress and the Bush administration. The White House is asserting executive privilege in the controversy over fired prosecutors. President Bush's attorney notified Congress today that he will not respond to subpoenas for documents and testimony in that scandal.

NPR's Ari Shapiro is following the story and joins us now. And what are the documents at issue, Ari?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Judiciary Committee had subpoenaed documents and testimony from Sara Taylor, who used to be the White House's political director, and Harriet Miers, who used to be the White House counsel. Today was the deadline for the White House to hand over those documents, and they sent the Senate and House Judiciary Committees a letter saying, sorry, it's not going to happen, in this case we're exerting executive privilege.

INSKEEP: And remind people what that means.

SHAPIRO: Well, in the words of the letter, Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, says: Presidents would not be able to fulfill their responsibilities if their advisers, on fear being commanded the Capitol Hill to testify or having their documents produced to Congress, were reluctant to communicate openly and honestly in the course of rendering advice and reaching decisions.

In plain English this is saying, these are internal White House conversations, they're protected by the protections that encompass the executive branch, therefore we don't have to hand these over.

INSKEEP: Which is a claim that presidents make all the time, and the presidents and Congress argue over what will happen. Is the White House making any offer to resolve this?

SHAPIRO: They have made an offer. Some months earlier, they said that they would be willing to hand over a limited number of documents and they would be willing to allow White House officials to do off - private, without an oath, without a transcript interviews with the House and Senate Judiciary Committee staffers.

But members of Congress say that's just not acceptable. They've been saying, if you don't have a transcript, people can leave the room and have good faith differences about what was said there.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who's the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was pretty angry when he heard about this this morning. He described the White House's position as Nixonian stonewalling. He said the president and the vice president feel that they are above the law. In America, he said, no one is above the law.

INSKEEP: Well, if you continue to have Congress and the White House just refusing to cooperate with each other, each making a demand that the other one says it cannot accept, who's the referee, ultimately?

SHAPIRO: The courts, eventually. And this morning the White House had a background briefing with senior administration officials. One of them was asked, are you confident you can prevail in court? The response was, well, we hope we can work this out with Congress without going to court. They keep reiterating this offer that Congress says is just flatly unacceptable so it may yet go to court.

Some observers wonder whether this could be a way for the White House to try to stretch this out. You know, a litigation process in court could take a long time eventually…

INSKEEP: Until the end of the Bush administration.

SHAPIRO: Exactly.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR justice reporter Ari Shapiro. And you're going to try to help us keep our subpoenas straight, I hope, Ari, because this one we've just been discussing is not the only subpoena at issue.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has also issued subpoenas just this week for documents related to the president's domestic spying program. Where does that stand?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued the subpoenas yesterday. The White House has not yet responded, but they have consistently said that they do not want to hand over these documents. We don't expect them to hand over these documents, quite frankly.

They say that they have given classified briefings to congressional committees in private that ought to satisfy the committees. The committees are not satisfied, and so this, too, may play out in a very similar way.

INSKEEP: Those briefings were not satisfactory at all to people like Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont?

SHAPIRO: Well, Senator Leahy says he understands how the system works now, how the spying program works. What he wants in this subpoena, what he wants from these documents, is the legal justification that explained why this was permissible in the first place.

INSKEEP: Is that something that would be classified information that would reveal sources and methods, a legal justification?

SHAPIRO: The White House says that nearly everything related to this program is classified. The problem here is that recent congressional testimony showed there was serious dispute in the executive branch over whether this was legal or not. That's why Congress wants to know more about it.

INSKEEP: Ari, thanks.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's justice reporter Ari Shapiro. You're hearing him on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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