Executive Privilege Debate To Go To Court?

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

How executive privilege should be exercised continues to be one of the most hotly contested political issues of President George W. Bush's tenure.

Lawmakers have given the White House until Monday to explain why the administration claimed executive privilege on subpoenaed documents related to the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys. The lawmakers want to know whether the White House improperly ordered the dismissals.

They also want an accounting of documents being withheld. If an agreement isn't reached, the battle could possibly go from being a political issue to a constitutional showdown in federal court.

Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have agreed to conduct the testimony in private and to not place witnesses under oath, but transcripts remain a sticking point.

"They won't give us any documents from the White House," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod, who hosted Face the Nation. "They won't let us talk to anyone with a transcript or under oath or in public. You know, when somebody claims this kind of secrecy on these kinds of specific acts, it's usually because they have something to hide."

Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah, said the administration has cooperated fully and provided Congress with nearly 10,000 pages of documents about the firings of the U.S. Attorneys. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the deputy attorney general, presidential advisor Karl Rove and others have already testified on the matter, he said.

"In all of the hearings we've had, and all the requests for documents, the demand of people to come up and testify before the committee, which the White House has cooperated in," he said. "There hasn't been one indication of any real impropriety."

Hatch said that having transcripts of top administration officials is unusual and the White House has to protect its ability to have confidential communication.

The investigation has expanded to include scrutiny of the administration's warrantees wiretapping program and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' stewardship of the Justice Department.

Hatch said Democrats are embarking on a "fishing expedition" to damage the White House. But Schumer said it is an important enough issue to warrant taking the administration to court. And if it comes to that, he said the Democrat controlled Congress will prevail.

Debate also continues about whether Scooter Libby was given special treatment. The president commuted his 30 month prison sentence for obstructing justice in the Valerie Plame leak case.

Hatch said the president should have pardoned Libby, but Schumer said commuting the sentence was in the president's best interest. He said after a person is pardoned, he could be called before Congress to testify. When a person's sentence is commuted, he has greater Fifth Amendment rights and doesn't have to answer many questions.

Schumer said Libby was given special treatment because the Justice Department guidelines say someone convicted of this crime usually receives 30 to 37 months in prison. But Hatch said that Libby has served the country all his life and is not a criminal. He pointed out that President Bill Clinton also had some questionable pardons.

"They both had an absolute right to grant pardons," Hatch said.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," Schumer countered. "That's the bottom line."