1954 May 17

President Eisenhower Issues Executive Privilege Memo


President Dwight Eisenhower issued a letter to the Secretary of Defense on this day that claimed that presidents have the right to withhold documents involving internal discussions within the administration from Congress. Although many previous presidents had refused to turn over certain documents or information to Congress, this letter was arguably the first full statement of what became the doctrine of executive privilege. The letter was based on a memo by Attorney General Herbert Brownell in March 1954, which detailed the theory and cited historical precedents.

A Supreme Court test of the constitutionality of executive privilege finally occurred when President Richard Nixon unsuccessfully claimed it in his effort to withhold crucial White House tape recordings in the Watergate Scandal. The Court upheld the constitutionality of executive privilege, but rejected Nixon’s use of it in this case, in the historic decision United States v. Nixon, on July 24, 1974.

Eisenhower’s letter to the Secretary of Defense: “Because it is essential to efficient and effective administration that employees of the Executive Branch be in a position to be completely candid in advising with each other on official matters, and because it is not in the public interest that any of their conversations or communications, or any documents or reproductions, concerning such advice be disclosed, you will instruct employees of your Department that in all of their appearances before the Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Government Operations regarding the inquiry now before it they are not to testify to any such conversations or communications or to produce any such document or reproductions. This principle must be maintained regardless of who would be benefited by such disclosures.”

Learn more about presidents’ use and abuse of executive privilege: Mark J. Rozell, Executive Privilege: Presidential Power, Secrecy, and Accountability, 3rd ed. (2010)

Watch a documentary on President Nixon and the historic Watergate tapes case: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGGMAEgkjgA

Learn more about Herbert Brownell: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.law.010

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