March 24, 1998
Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation into the Clinton administration has hit a new snag. According to lawyers, the president has claimed executive privilege to protect several of his advisers from testifying before the grand jury. Is this a proper use of executive privilege? Following a background report, two former White House counsels and two law professors debate the concept with Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his prosecutors had nothing to say as they left the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington late last Friday. Lawyers for President Clinton were likewise mum when they left a short time later.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
March 24, 1998:
A debate over the executive privilege issue.
March 16, 1998:
A discussion of the latest allegations against the president.
February 19, 1998:
C. Boyden Gray and Jack Quinn debate the claim of executive privilege.
February 18, 1998:
Washington Post's Dan Balz discusses the possibility of Bruce Lindsey claiming executive privilege.
A look at the Clinton crisis and the President's first interview on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Browse NewsHour coverage of the White House and legal issues.
Full coverage of the Clinton crisis from The Washington Post.
The reported claim of privilege.
But the next morning's newspapers reported that the lawyers had been arguing the issue of executive privilege in a private hearing before the judge overseeing Starr's inquiry into the Monica Lewinsky matter. According to these reports, the President has formally invoked executive privilege in an effort to keep two top aides from having to answer all of Starr's questions before the grand jury.
The aides are Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey, often described as Mr. Clinton's closest adviser, and former journalist Sidney Blumenthal, who went to work at the White House only recently. Both have testified before the grand jury, but they refused to answer certain questions. The report said the White House wanted to shield them from having to disclose their conversations with the President and with other White House aides regarding what advice to give the President. In Lindsey's case the White House is invoking attorney/client privilege, as well as executive privilege.
Today, The Washington Post reported that the White House also is trying to protect Blumenthal's conversations with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Previous presidents have invoked this privilege to protect documents and conversations.
The turbulent legal past of executive privilege.
The most well-known example occurred during the Watergate investigation of 1974, when Richard Nixon tried to withhold tapes he had made of conversations with his top aides. In an eight to nothing ruling the Supreme Court recognized the validity of executive privilege protections but said that privilege did not extend to tapes that could be so relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. President Nixon surrendered the tapes. The contents were so explosive that he resigned two weeks later.
A right of privacy?
White House officials won't confirm publicly that President Clinton has invoked executive privilege. In Uganda today the President had little to say when asked about the matter.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Look, that's a question that's being asked and answered back home by the people who are responsible to do that. I don't believe I should be discussing that here.
MARGARET WARNER: But White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry has maintained that any president should have the right to protect the privacy of his conversations with his top advisers.
MICHAEL McCURRY, White House Press Secretary: I think this president, like previous presidents, recognize the importance of preserving confidential communications. That's a longstanding principle that presidents have fought for, going back to Thomas Jefferson.
MARGARET WARNER: On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott criticized the White House for invoking executive privilege in the Starr matter.
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: I think they've made a mistake by doing that. I think it will damage the credibility. It looks like they are hiding something, so I think they shouldn't have done it. I think it's an improper use, and the courts will have to decide whether or not that's a proper use. And it may wind up in the Supreme Court, like it did in the Watergate matter.
MARGARET WARNER: Before that can happen, the presiding judge in the Starr inquiry will have to issue her ruling on the question.