To: Edmund Randolph, Attorney General of the United States
From: Paul Colborn (J.D. expected May 1793), Office of Legal Counsel
Date: April 1, 1792
Re: Assertion of executive privilege in response to congressional requests for information
In preparation for tomorrow’s cabinet meeting, you have requested the opinion of this office on a matter of some delicacy. On March 27, the House of Representatives appointed a special committee to conduct an investigation of recent military operations initiated by Major General Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory. As this represents the first time the House has authorized an investigation of this sort, our response will set an important precedent.
To briefly review the relevant facts, for the past several years the United States has been engaged in both diplomatic negotiations and military conflict with Indian nations in the Northwest Territory. Pursuant to orders from President Washington, in 1790 St. Clair sent General Josiah Harmar to lead a punitive expedition against the more recalcitrant elements of the indigenous population. This effort did not go well. Harmar lost about 200 men in battle and did not achieve his objective.
Last year St. Clair personally led another offensive against the Miami Indians in the Ohio region. The results were even worse. On November 4, 1791, St. Clair’s army was surrounded and completely destroyed by Indian forces. In a letter to the Secretary of War, St. Clair described this “as unfortunate an action as almost any that has been fought.” 3 Annals of Congress 1055. St. Clair is now considering an early retirement.
The House has empowered its committee “to call for such persons, papers and records, as may be necessary to assist their inquiries.” 3 Annals of Congress 493. Pursuant to this authority, the committee has made a broad request to the President for documents that might shed light on the causes of St. Clair’s defeat. We view this as a “fishing expedition” for politically explosive or embarrassing information that might gain the committee members some attention in the press.
The President has asked his cabinet for advice on how to respond to the committee request. Specifically, he wishes to know whether the House has the constitutional authority to seek the information requested and whether he may or should withhold any of the responsive documents.
We accept that the House is an inquest and is entitled to request documents and other information from the executive branch. See generally Mort Rosenberg, Congressional Oversight Manual (1st ed. 1791). However, this principle must be limited by a doctrine we have termed “executive privilege,” which subsumes the privileges set forth below: Continue reading “If the Washington Administration Had an Office of Legal Counsel . . .”