You'll remember that on the 19th I noted Mike Isikoff's Newsweek article on the Bill Clinton-Ehud Barak phone conversation transcripts. And I made the point that the real story was just how Dan Burton's committee managed to get hold of confidential transcripts of phone conversations between the President of the United States and the then-Prime Minister of Israel only months after the conversations occurred.
To put it mildly, the executive branch doesn't turn over this sort of information to congressional committees easily. It's classic executive privilege territory. And for good reason: How easy would it be in the future for the president to have frank discussions with foreign heads of state if the foreign heads of state knew that Dan Burton would be releasing transcripts of their conversations only a few months later?
You think the White House will be releasing transcripts of Bush's conversations with Ariel Sharon? Jiang Zemin? Tony Blair? As Phil Schiliro, chief of staff to Burton's Democratic counterpart Henry Waxman, told me today, "Given the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration, it's inconceivable that they would turn over this sort of information if it affected President Bush."
In any case, the transcripts in question are currently in the custody of the National Archives, where they were deposited after Bill Clinton left office. However, it's still up to the current occupants of the Executive Branch to decide what gets released and what doesn't.
So here's how it went down, according to my sources. Staffers from Burton's committee, the House Government Reform Committee, didn't receive copies of the transcripts. They were given access to them at the National Archives. They were allowed to take notes, but not get actual copies.
So I called the Bush National Security Council press office. They told me to speak with Bill Leary in their FOIA office. I called his number and got another man in the office who said Leary wasn't available. He told me that "the request for information went to the National Archives [and that] the National Archives had made all arrangements" for making the documents available, and that I should call the National Archives. The White House had no role, he said, except for "classification." (As I'll discuss in a later post, this reference to "classification" was a technically true statement which essentially admitted in one word, what he had denied with many a few moments before, i.e., that they had everything to do with the release of the documents. But more on that later.)
When I asked for his name, he hung up on me.
I then called back and in slightly more colorful language asked him why he had hung up on me and whether he would identify himself. He told me that he and his office "don't respond to press inquiries."
This may all seem rather technical. So let's review what this all means. These transcripts are the sort of documents that the executive branch is usually extremely resistant to handing over, and seldom ever does. Especially not so soon after the events occurred. In this case, it seems the Bush NSC changed the rules because the folks there thought they could embarrass the previous administration. In so doing, they also potentially created a terrible precedent for the ability of this and future administrations to conduct foreign policy, by breaching the confidentiality of the president's conversations with foreign heads of state.
The unnamed NSC staffer I spoke to denied that they had been involved in this. But, as a matter of fact, the Bush NSC was intimately involved in the decision to make these confidential transcripts available to the Burton Committee staffers. Do I know this? Yes, I know.
If it was a reasonable decision to make on the merits, why hide behind such juvenile tactics? And since this is an actual abuse of the powers of the executive to further a narrow partisan objective, why no more scrutiny to this aspect of the story by the press?