Bush administration claims more power under executive privilege.

Bush administration claims more power under executive privilege.

Bush administration claims more power under executive privilege.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 20 2007 6:02 AM

Super Privilege

The Washington Postleads with word that the Bush administration will now argue that the Justice Department simply doesn't have the power to pursue contempt charges once the president has claimed executive privilege. In other words, it doesn't matter how hard congressional Democrats try to hold some White House officials in contempt because of their refusal to comply with subpoenas relating to the firings of U.S. attorneys. It seems the administration is choosing to talk to Congress through the Post since lawmakers haven't been informed of this new strategy. The New York Timesleads with Democratic lawmakers deciding that they will mostly stop pushing for big changes in voting systems across the country for next year's presidential election. They will instead focus on making some small changes and wait until 2012 to implement a completely different system.

The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with, and the Los Angeles Timestop nonlocal story is devoted to, the video conferences that lawmakers had with top military officials in Iraq and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who said they need more time beyond the much-awaited September report to assess whether the current strategy is working. The WSJ focuses on how it is clear that U.S. commanders have already "mapped out plans" to continue with the surge into next year. USA Todayleads with a look at how the steam pipe that exploded in New York on Wednesday is an example of old public-works systems across the country that must be renovated. According to estimates, $1.6 billion will be needed over five years to bring these aging systems up to date so they can handle increasing demand.

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To appreciate the White House's new claims of executive privilege, it's important to understand how contempt charges work. First, the House or Senate issues "a statutory contempt citation," which is given to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who then has to convene a grand jury. But none of this would be able to happen under the White House's new position on the matter, which an expert in executive privilege called "astonishing." It all amounts to "a breathtakingly broad view of the president's role in this system of separation of powers," the expert said. This view of executive privilege is apparently based on an opinion issued by the Justice Department during the Reagan administration.

Democratic lawmakers were naturally outraged by these super executive-privilege claims. "I suppose the next step would be just disbanding the Justice Department," Rep. Henry Waxman said. Yesterday, a House judiciary subcommittee took the first steps in beginning contempt proceedings against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten for his refusal to turn over documents.

State and local officials told lawmakers there's simply not enough time to overhaul the country's voting systems for next year. Instead, Democrats are focusing on smaller things they could do to make sure voters leave a paper trail when they cast their ballots, such as adding "tiny, cash-register-style printers" to the machines that are currently in use.

Although the military commanders vowed to produce the September report on time, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said he would need "at least until November" to get a full picture of the situation on the ground. In addition, Crocker asked Congress not to place so much emphasis on the benchmarks, which, he admitted, Iraqi lawmakers are unlikely to meet. Democrats were skeptical of these requests. "You don't have much time," Sen. Joseph Biden said, in a sentiment that was echoed by several of his colleagues.

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The WP fronts a look at how U.S. forces in Iraq are increasingly coming to "handshake agreements" with Iraqi insurgents to get them to fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. In exchange for their cooperation, the military sometimes agrees to release militants who have attacked U.S. troops. The Post describes the agreements as "a kind of don't-ask-don't-tell pardon system." Although an official says the number of insurgents released has been small, there have allegedly been some complaints from U.S. troops who decry it as a "catch and release" policy. But there seems to be recognition that this type of agreement provides the U.S. military with some important bargaining tools.

Judging from the incredible Page One photo in today's NYT (national edition) that depicts the horrible conditions of a holding facility in Baghdad, where detainees are sometimes kept for months, it's no wonder they would do everything possible to get out of there. (Be sure to check out the accompanying slide show.)

In other Iraq news, everyone reports that Iraq's largest Sunni political group announced that it was ending its boycott of parliament. Earlier this week, Shiite legislators loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr also announced they were returning to work. Despite this development, it's still unclear whether lawmakers will be able to make much progress since there are still deep divisions "over every major legislative question," says the NYT. Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced that two U.S. soldiers were charged with murdering an Iraqi man in Kirkuk, and five U.S. service members were killed yesterday.

The WSJ goes high with, but no one else gives much play to, news that Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman sent Sen. Hillary Clinton a letter saying that her questioning how the United States would withdraw from Iraq "reinforces enemy propaganda."

The LAT fronts a great feature on Ed and Elaine Brown, a couple in New Hampshire who stopped paying income taxes in 1996, believing the Constitution supports their contention that their work can't be taxed. They were sentenced to five years in prison but they've been  refusing to leave their home  for six months. Officials have cut off services from the house but are wary of being too aggressive since the couple is armed. Meanwhile, the couple has gathered quite the fan base, many of whom deliver food and other necessities. "You remember that little gentleman in China, Tiananmen Square?" Ed asks. "He was the same as we are. You can scare me, you can kill me, but you can't intimidate me."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.