WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday invoked executive privilege to block a congressional subpoena exploring abuses in the Boston FBI office, prompting the chairman of a House committee to lambaste his fellow Republicans and triggering what one congressman said is the start of ''a constitutional confrontation.''
''You tell the president there's going to be war between the president and this committee,'' Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who heads the House Government Reform Committee, told a Justice Department official during what was supposed to be a routine prehearing handshake.
''We've got a dictatorial president and a Justice Department that does not want Congress involved...
Your guy's acting like he's king, ''
GOP Representative Dan Burton of Indiana (left) tells Carl Thorsen, a deputy assistant attorney general. (AP photo)
''His dad was at a 90 percent approval rating and he lost, and the same thing can happen to him,'' Burton added, jabbing his finger and glaring at Carl Thorsen, a deputy assistant attorney general who was attempting to introduce a superior who was testifying.
''We've got a dictatorial president and a Justice Department that does not want Congress involved. ... Your guy's acting like he's king.''
The searing tone continued for more than four hours from Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. All objected to the order Bush signed Wednesday and made public yesterday. It claimed executive privilege in refusing to hand over prosecutors' memos in criminal cases, including an investigation of campaign-finance abuses, saying doing so ''would be contrary to the national interest.''
Committee members said the order's sweeping language created a shift in presidential policy and practices dating back to the Harding administration. They complained also that it followed a pattern in which the Bush administration has limited access to presidential historical records, refused to give Congress documents about the vice president's energy task force, and unilaterally announced plans for military commissions that would try suspected terrorists in secret.
Representative William D. Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat and former district attorney, said: ''This is the beginning of a constitutional confrontation. In a short period of time, this Department of Justice has manifested tendencies that were of concern to Senate members during the confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft as attorney general.''
The Government Reform Committee is investigating the FBI's use of confidential informants while the bureau investigated New England organized crime activities.
The committee seeks information on deals FBI officials struck with suspected murderers Stephen ''the Rifleman'' Flemmi and James ''Whitey'' Bulger.
It is also exploring what FBI officials, including former director J. Edgar Hoover, knew about the innocence of Joseph Salvati of Massachusetts. Salvati spent 30 years in prison for the 1965 murder of Edward ''Teddy'' Deegan in Chelsea, but the Governor's Council commuted his sentence in 1997. His conviction was overturned in January after a judge concluded that FBI agents hid testimony that would have cleared Salvati because they wanted to protect an informant.
''The federal government wanted Joe Salvati to die in jail because dead men don't tell tales,'' said Salvati's lawyer, Victor J. Garo, at the hearing yesterday.
In buttressing the executive order, Michael E. Horowitz, chief of staff for the Justice Department's criminal division, told the committee that providing documents about prosecutorial decision-making could have a ''chilling effect'' on the advice that lower-level attorneys may be willing to provide to top prosecutors.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Ronald Reagan invoked such a privilege three times, while Bill Clinton did so on four occasions. Forms of privilege were also claimed in the Nixon administration during the Watergate investigation. Fleischer said the Justice Department has already turned over 3,500 pages to Burton's committee, although members complained that many were heavily redacted.
The Justice Department offered to provide summaries of 20 documents it believes would be covered by the subpoena.
Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat from Newton, said he and Burton, a conservative, had sometimes disagreed on the committee's inquiries into the Clinton administration. He said the chairman's strong words for his fellow Republicans showed he had not merely been partisan.
Turning to Horowitz, Frank asked why the Bush administration might cover up mistakes made in a previous administration. ''I don't know what bureaucratic reflex drives people to do this,'' the congressman said.
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