Bernard Nussbaum invoked executive privilege when, as White
House counsel, he denied Justice Department investigators access to
some of Vincent Foster's papers after Foster committed suicide.
When Nussbaum testifies before the Senate Whitewater Committee, he
should be pressed to explain why he thought that response was
If the White House had no grounds for invoking executive
privilege across the board before, it has none now in its
negotiations with the Senate committee on access to Foster's
When properly used, executive privilege exempts the executive
branch from disclosure requirements that apply to ordinary citizens.
Though not specifically mentioned in the Constitution,
executive privilege is grounded in the doctrine of separation of
powers - the need of each branch of government to be independent
from the other two.
If confidential communications between high federal officials
and their advisers were not protected by executive privilege,
candor would be a casualty.
But when national security and military and diplomatic secrets
are not involved, executive privilege is neither absolute nor
While most often invoked to protect the executive branch from
congressional demands, executive privilege may also be used against
judicial processes, as President Richard M. Nixon tried to do,
unsuccessfully, during Watergate.
But it cannot be used to insulate one branch of government from
one of its components. The Justice Department is part of the
Insofar as the Foster files concerned President Bill Clinton's
personal legal and financial matters, they are far outside the
scope of executive privilege. Since these papers did not involve
the operation of the executive office of the president, law
enforcement officials were entitled to see them.
Nussbaum and his defenders have also argued that the Justice
Department investigators were not entitled to see the Foster files
on the ground of attorney-client privilege. This too is a dubious
When Foster joined the White House staff as deputy counsel to
the president, he changed clients. The moment Foster started
representing the Office of the President, he should have stopped
working on Bill Clinton's personal affairs, especially those that
could give rise to conflicts of interest between Foster's
obligation to the government and to his private client.
Nonetheless, it appears that Foster went on working on
Clinton's personal matters, including Whitewater and the
preparation of tax returns.
Even if this private work for Clinton and Hillary Rodham
Clinton did not deprive the federal government of his services - if
the government did not in effect subsidize Clinton's private life -
the dual representation of the presidency and the private Clinton
was fraught with peril. …