Invoking an 'Executive Decision'

The pendulum has swung too far away from a historical tendency to let the president act covertly

The recent revelation that President Clinton allowed the Iranians to supply weapons to the Muslim-led Bosnian government has prompted an outcry from congressional Republicans and led to the possibility that as many as six committees will investigate our latest Iranian "scandal." It is disappointing that Republicans in Congress are resorting to the same tactics previously used by their Democratic counterparts in conducting investigations critical of covert initiatives. The apparent decision of Mr. Clinton to invoke executive privilege and refuse to release a secret internal report on the matter should be welcomed as a healthy defense of presidential power.

For almost 200 years American presidents from George Washington to Gerald Ford utilized a variety of clandestine activities free from congressional oversight. This practice began with Washington's request for a secret-service fund in 1790. Washington's successors often resorted to clandestine operations when they believed the national interest required it. Congress was rarely "in the loop" when it came to these operations, whether it was Thomas Jefferson's bribing Indian chiefs to cede land sought by American frontiersmen; James Madison's covert operations to acquire Florida; or the secret activities of a variety of presidents to acquire land from Mexico. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison had their differences on the great issues of their day, but they shared a belief that the protection of America's security interests depended on the unfettered capability of the president to conduct clandestine operations.

This consensus held well into the 20th century, but disintegrated in the mid-1970s under the weight of Watergate, Vietnam, and revelations of cold-war CIA abuses. Both the Church Committee and the Iran-Contra Committee unleashed a whirlwind of reforms designed to rein in the secret arms of the executive branch.

After 20 years of this experiment, we have reached a point at which the presidency is under a perpetual state of siege regarding covert operations. The executive branch should not be constrained from moving with what Alexander Hamilton called "secrecy and dispatch."

Congressional reforms of the past 20 years threaten to replace Hamilton's understanding of executive power with one based on a disdain for executive secrecy and a desire to shackle executive discretion. Congress and the American people need to recognize, as the Founding Fathers did, that the president may have to take unilateral actions for the good of the country that are not subject to open discussion.

This goes against contemporary notions of accountability and obedience to public sentiment, but we would do well to heed the advice of Thomas Jefferson, who noted, "All nations have found it necessary, that for the advantageous conduct of their affairs, some of these [executive] proceedings should remain known to their executive functionary only."

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