Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2002 / 4 Adar, 5762

Amitai Etzioni

Amitai Etzioni
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

A former White House staffer's plea to Congress: A presidency needs privacy -- BASED on my experience as a White House staff member, I hope Congress will respect the government's position that conversations Vice President Cheney had about energy policy are "privileged." The ability of the president and his senior staff to hold consultations without fearing that every thought aired could become public is so important for the well- being of the republic that I favor respecting "executive privilege" - even if it sets back the Enron investigation.

After Kenneth Starr succeeded in getting his hands on countless internal White House memos and copies of e-mails - and after their content found their way from his office to the press - Clinton staffers were warned not to write anything down that in any way could adversely reflect on the administration. Sensitive messages were to be handwritten and delivered rather than sent by e-mail. "Sensitive" was defined as "anything you do not wish to read in tomorrow's headlines." It included any considerations of negative consequences of a policy the president might end up embracing or objections to its introduction. Staffers were even urged not to keep diaries.

It is hard to describe the chill such a constant concern with keeping things in-house imposes on the White House staff. I served in the Carter White House. All kinds of ideas were bandied about. Someone, very briefly, mentioned that maybe we should ask Israel for help in getting our hostages out of Iran. As far as I can tell, this was never seriously considered. But if this had found its way into the media at the time, most people would have had a very hard time telling if it had been just an idle thought or truly entertained. Surely the Arab press would not have been bothered by such subtleties.

The main damage would have extended beyond some bad press - future staff members would not have felt free to brainstorm and put forward outlying options. The same holds for someone who argued, half seriously, for a return to the gold standard to fight inflation. If this had been reported, the markets, already unstable, would have been further rattled. And these are only some of the less far-out notions that were mentioned during my White House days.

If you run anything - a business, a foundation, a college - imagine what it would be like if instead of e-mailing and faxing, memos on sensitive matters had to be handwritten and carried, if notes of meetings had to be constantly sanitized, and everybody learned to talk in circumlocutions. Can you see why I hold that the country would be damaged if the presidency became hobbled by the fear of unlimited disclosure?

I hasten to add that I am not a card- carrying Republican, never had an Enron share, never received a penny from the largesse it was spreading around. Before all this happened, I argued that both parties should get together to agree on new "rules of the game." I strongly suspected that the Democrats, smarting from the extreme partisanship Republicans displayed in the Clinton impeachment hearings, would be lying in the wait to get their gloves on the next Republican administration.

Instead, I suggested that both sides commit to limiting their partisanship for the sake of the country. Tighter definitions should be found for "high crimes and misdemeanors," agreement should be reached on not suing a president for offenses committed before he or she was elected - for the period that the person is in office - and the president should be granted a limited measure of executive privilege.

A good place to start would be with the text of a federal court of appeals ruling in favor of keeping secret the deliberations of a health task force headed by the then first lady, Hillary Clinton. It stated, "if a president cannot deliberate in confidence, it is hard to imagine how he can decide and act quickly."

Despite the obvious need for the president and his senior staff to be able to huddle without everybody and their brother listening in, such a privilege needs to be limited. If there is specific evidence that a serious crime has been committed in or by the White House, all bets are off. We do not want a king who is above the law. But going fishing in White House documents, on the basis of some vague allegations and suspicions, should not be allowed.

What about the Enron investigation? There are numerous ways the questions on whether the company overly influenced the Bush energy policy can be investigated without forcing the president to disclose internal deliberations. Most obvious is the policy itself. It is no secret what Enron favored and, of course, the policy is quite public. And Congress is free to subpoena Enron documents, e-mails, and staff. But given that life is full of trade-offs, even if respecting the White House's executive privilege sets back the investigation some, it is a price worth paying to secure the ability of this and future presidents to do their work without being unduly encumbered.

JWR contributor Amitai Etzioni, of George Washington University, is the author of, among others, The Limits of Privacy. Comment by clicking here.

01/03/02: One nation, after all
12/27/01: Where children must write their PARENTS notes
12/20/01: American extremists
12/13/01: Homeland defense is best option for volunteerism
11/11/01: Can we force democracy on the Afghans?
11/08/01: How not to win the war
10/01/01: Problems with the new antiterrorist agenda is not that it is too grand, but that it is not grand enough
09/21/01: Either U.S. forces should strike back hard or we'll lose our freedoms
09/05/01: Communities, not the president, must enact morality
08/23/01: Economists fail as forecasters
08/09/01: Live from Washington it's . "Everyone's a Criminal"
07/27/01: Condit case illustrates the need to rein in fast-talking lawyers playing verbal acrobatics with the truth
08/01/01: Shouting 'Big Brother' in a crowded society

© 2001, Amitai Etzioni