Less than 24 hours after the Senate Judiciary Committee issued new subpoenas demanding that the Bush administration turn over documents related to the president's warrantless domestic surveillance program, the White House said this morning it would refuse to comply with subpoenas Congress served previously as part of its investigation into the firing of a slew of U.S. attorneys last year.
Today was the day that the White House was supposed to provide Congress with documents relating to the roles former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former White House political director Sara Taylor played in the prosecutor purge. Instead, in a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, current White House counsel Fred Fielding said that the president would be invoking "executive privilege" as a justification for refusing to turn over the documents and refusing to make either Miers or Taylor available for sworn testimony before the committees.
"With respect," Fielding wrote, "it is with much regret that we are forced down this unfortunate path, which we sought to avoid by finding grounds for mutual accommodation."
The "mutual accommodation" Fielding and the White House had in mind: They would have allowed Miers, Taylor and Karl Rove to be "interviewed" by Judiciary Committee aides, but only in private and without any transcripts or recordings made.
Fielding said that the White House's refusal to comply with the subpoenas rests on a "bedrock presidential prerogative: for the president to perform his constitutional duties, it is imperative that he receive candid and unfettered advice and that free and open discussions and deliberations occur among his advisors and between those advisors and others within and outside the executive branch."
That's an awfully sweeping view of executive privilege -- it covers not just advice the president gets from his advisors but also the conversations those advisors have with one another and with "others within and outside the executive branch." But in the wake of the Supreme Court's rather solicitous decision in the case of Dick Cheney's energy task force, it's probably argument enough to keep the dispute over the subpoenas in the courts until long after it matters anymore.
Update: The response from House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers: "The president's response to our subpoena shows an appalling disregard for the right of the people to know what is going on in their government. The executive privilege assertion is unprecedented in its breadth and scope, and even includes documents that the administration previously offered to provide as part of their 'take it or leave it' proposal. This response indicates the reckless disrespect this administration has for the rule of law. The charges alleged in this investigation are serious -- including obstruction of justice and misleading Congress -- and the White House should be as committed to this investigation as the Congress. At this point, I see only one choice in moving forward, and that is to enforce the rule of law set forth in these subpoenas."
Update 2: And now, the response from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy: "This is a further shift by the Bush administration into Nixonian stonewalling and more evidence of their disdain for our system of checks and balances. . . . Increasingly, the president and vice president feel they are above the law. In America, no one is above law."