The Corner

Obama’s Evolving Position on Executive Privilege

This morning, President Obama invoked executive privilege to withhold documents requested as evidence by the House Oversight Committee as part of its ongoing investigation into the administration’s Fast and Furious program. The move was intended to relieve Attorney General Eric Holder just moments before the committee was to vote on holding Holder in contempt for failing to turn the documents over.

Of course, in the past Obama has taken a firm stance against the use of executive privilege:

2007, from an interview with CNN’s Larry King:

KING: “Do you favor executive privilege or should Karl Rove and others in that position be forced to testify before the House or Senate? (On Bush’s administration and executive privilege)

OBAMA: “Well, you know, I think we’ll — we’ll determine over the next several weeks how this administration responds to the very appropriate call by Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to have these individuals come in and testify. You know, there’s been a tendency on the part of this administration to — to try to hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky that’s taking place. And I think, you know, the administration would be best served by coming clean on this. There doesn’t seem to be any national security issues involved with the U.S. attorney question. There doesn’t seem to be any justification for not offering up some clear, plausible rationale for why these — these U.S. attorneys were targeted when, by all assessments, they were doing an outstanding job. I think the American people deserve to know what was going on there.

On taking office in 2009, President Obama called attention to the issue again, issuing a transparency memo that ordered executive agencies to operate with a strong “presumption in favor of disclosure” and called for a “national commitment” to open government. He also repealed a Bush administration executive order that expanded the practice of executive privilege, and made a show of reversing a Bush administration policy on answering Freedom of Information Act requests he said was too restrictive.

“For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” Mr. Obama said at a swearing-in ceremony for senior officials at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. He added, “Transparency and rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

So why has President Obama chosen to utilize executive privilege now? Does the move imply, as House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) speculated, that “White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed”? Is there, in the words of then-senator Obama, “something a little shaky that’s taking place”?

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