Transcript Of Reno's Comments On Burton Subpoena
Aug. 4, 1998
JANET RENO: I asked today to appear before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee because I bear ultimate responsibility for the Department of Justice's decisions and the buck stops with me.
Chairman Burton refused my request to appear.
I greatly respect this system of checks and balances that our founding fathers established. It is a pretty remarkable system. They wisely assigned each branch of government a distinct and a limited role. One of Congress's important roles is to oversee the work of the executive branch in order to better carry out Congress's legislative duties.
Among the executive's most important functions is the prosecution of criminals, making sure innocent people are not charged, and punishing wrong-doing.
When there is disagreement between the branches, our task as public servants is to find solutions -- to work together to find solutions -- that permit both branches to do their job.
As you know, the deceit of Justice is conducting an investigation into allegations of criminal activity surrounding the financing of the 1996 presidential election. In that investigation, we have charged 11 persons to date, and the investigation is still very much ongoing.
More than 120 dedicated prosecutors, agents and staff are working across the country, and many targets, suspects and defense lawyers are watching our every move, hoping for clues that will help tip them off and help them escape the law's reach.
The committee has demanded that I provide two memos to the committee. We have reviewed the request and the demand carefully. Director Freeh and I agree that we cannot hand over these memos. Indeed, no attorney general has turned over documents like this under such circumstances.
This past Friday, Director Freeh and I also visited the chairman and rank member in order to seek an accommodation that would enable us all to perform our duties without confrontation.
We explained that the LaBella memo contained an extensive analysis on campaign finance and on the investigation. But we need to review it carefully, and very thoroughly, so that when I finish my review, I may or may not ask for the Independent Counsel Act to be triggered.
We offered to provide a confidential briefing to the chairman and ranking member at the conclusion of my review on any matter that was not 6(e) material and that would not adversely impact the pending criminal investigation.
We advised that the review should be complete within about three weeks. Chairman Burton rejected this offer and said that the committee would cite me for contempt if I did not turn over the memos.
I am reviewing both memos with an open mind. If I do decide to trigger the appointment of an independent counsel, he or she would certainly not want this memo to be public. If I do not trigger the act, the criminal investigation would nonetheless continue.
The reasonable course of action is for us to complete the review in a professional and an orderly manner, and then to determine what steps need to be taken. No attorney general has ever turned over such documents under such circumstances.
Let me explain why. According to Director Freeh and Mr. LaBella, both memos offer a road map to confidential, ongoing criminal investigations. Even excluding the grand jury information, which the committee is not seeking, such documents lay out the thinking, theories and strategies of our prosecutors and investigators, and the strengths and weaknesses of our cases.
They talk about leads that need further investigation.
Even when conducting vigorous oversight, Congress has historically respected this position, in part, because of a bipartisan understanding that law enforcement must be free from even the appearance of partisan political tampering. And the Justice Department has adhered to this position throughout this century.
Consider the words of Attorney General Robert H. Jackson (ph), who later served on the Supreme Court. "It is the position of the department, that all investigative reports are confidential documents of the executive department of the government to aid in the duty laid upon the president by the Constitution to take care that the laws be faithfully executed and that congressional or public access to them would be in the public interest."
Twelve years ago, the head of the Justice Department's legal counsel -- Office of Legal Counsel, during President Reagan's administration, Charles J. Cooper (ph), added other concerns, including -- "well-founded fears that he perception of the integrity, impartiality and fairness of the law enforcement process as a whole will be damaged if sensitive material is distributed beyond those persons necessarily involved in the investigation and prosecution process."
Now, the chairman has cited several examples that he claims contradict these long-standing opinions. We have analyzed these examples, and none of them deal with the demand the committee made to turn over law enforcement sensitive documents during a pending criminal investigation.
To give in to the committee's demands creates a precedent for Congress demanding the prosecution's most sensitive strategy memos and making them public to everyone, including the defendant's legal team. Chairman Burton told me Friday that, if I triggered the appointment of an independent counsel, I would not have to produce the memos.
If I give in to that suggestion, then I risk Congress turning all decisions to prosecute into a political football.
That is simply wrong, and I will not willingly allow that to happen. Politics does not belong in prosecution.
If future attorneys general know that the innermost thinking behind their toughest law enforcement decisions will become fodder for partisan debate, then we risk creating a Justice Department and FBI that tack to political winds instead of following the facts and the law wherever they lead.
If future law enforcement officials cannot provide advice that is candid and confidential, we will have a government of "yes" persons who advocate what is popular instead of what is right. And if future congresses can poll the attorney general's advisers or line (ph) attorneys in order to ferret out and promote opinions they approve of, then every controversial law enforcement decision will be tainted in the public's eyes.
All of these concerns are most acute when Congress demands information and seeks to pressure me on a sensitive law enforcement decision that I have not yet made.
For as long as I am attorney general, I am going to try to do my level best to uphold my oath to the Constitution and to make the right decisions. I will try to respond to the committee's request as best I can. But my oath to the Constitution will mean nothing if I threaten pending cases and future attorneys general by handing over documents that must remain confidential, if law enforcement is to be free of political tampering and investigators are able to follow every lead to see that justice is done.
QUESTION: Attorney General, is Charles LaBella being punished for (OFF-MIKE) report (OFF-MIKE) getting the job done? (OFF-MIKE)...
I have had no discussions on that with anyone involved in that process.
RENO: I will say that he has been an absolutely wonderful assistant United States attorney, and an excellent, excellent acting United States attorney.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno...
QUESTION: Did you recommend that he get the -- I mean (OFF- MIKE).
RENO: I didn't have any discussions. I don't usually.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, (OFF-MIKE) upon the release of these documents...
RENO: No, I did not.
QUESTION: On the release of these documents, the chairman said repeatedly today that you would not have to hand them over if executive privilege were invoked. Does that strike you as a possibility?
I've made my position clear. I have an obligation to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation. I can't provide the committee with confidential information. I also have an obligation to my employees. And I'm going to make sure that I do everything I can to work out these issues with the committee.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) on (OFF-MIKE)'s question, Ms. Reno, you (OFF-MIKE) several times in there. (OFF-MIKE) but the Cooper opinion (OFF-MIKE) that once the attorney general has received a subpoena, if the investigation on the Hill is (OFF-MIKE) the only response you have is executive privilege (OFF-MIKE)...
RENO: I think, in this instance, we have the longstanding position of the Department of Justice that pending law enforcement investigations should be confidential.
QUESTION: Would you agree with the (OFF-MIKE) the only way to withhold it from Congress (OFF-MIKE) executive privilege?
RENO: Again, what we're trying to do is to focus on the longstanding position of the Department of Justice, and do everything we can to make sure that the integrity of investigations and prosecutions are maintained.
QUESTION: Have you considered asking the White House
RENO: I have not been in touch with the White House on this matter.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, are we safe in assuming that these memos are sealed off from the White House as well as the Congress?
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, there was such partisan wrangling, and Mr. Burton complained that he had received no notice from you, your wishing to be at that hearing this morning, and that the notice came through Mr. Waxman, and that your letter was read by Mr. Lantos. And it seemed very partisan -- your particular point of view -- very partisanly carried by Democrats (OFF-MIKE) on the committee.
RENO: What I did was, on Friday, I went to visit with Chairman Burton and Mr. Waxman. He rejected by request. Then over the weekend, I had the opportunity to talk with Senator Hatch, and then, on Monday, with Congressman Hyde. And I think we reached an accommodation.
I had hoped -- and through phone calls with various members, we were trying to see whether we could effect an accommodation, as it became apparent throughout the night and then this morning. I wanted very much for the committee to know straight from me just what my position was. And for that reason, I asked what the appropriate protocol was. It was suggested that I should call the congressman, and I did so.
QUESTION: Is (OFF-MIKE) of the law?
RENO: I'm not discussing any of the issues that might or might not be raised.
QUESTION: You're talking about what you will do and what the Justice Department can do if they vote a contempt of Congress citation against you?
RENO: What I will continue to do is do everything I can, which I think is incumbent upon us all, to work out an accommodation that permits Congress to exercise its oversight function, and yet, maintains the integrity of the pending investigation.
We have been able to do that with Congressman Hyde and Senator Hatch's request for the report. And we have an understanding. And I trust that we can work it out with all concerned.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, it's by no means certain that this will be turned (OFF-MIKE). But if it is, aren't you required to -- if it is referred to the U.S. attorney's office here in town, (OFF-MIKE) you have to recuse yourself.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) it then (OFF-MIKE) the deputy attorney general as to whether this contempt citation gets carried out...
RENO: Yes, it would.
QUESTION: You said...
RENO: It would not devolve upon him. It would probably devolve upon him to make any decision with respect to the Independent Counsel Act. And then that being triggered, it would -- either the United States attorney or whomever the special division appointed would be the deciding...
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, (OFF-MIKE) LaBella recommendation. Could you give us some idea of the process (OFF-MIKE)? Do you meet with a number of people? Do you meet with...
RENO: What I did when I got the report was to read it myself, but also to set up a process, such as we utilize when we try to reach decisions in all matters, making sure that everybody who had participated in these decisions had an opportunity to read the memorandum, read the extensive exhibits, and make appropriate comments through prepared memorandum.
My hope is then -- and I have talked with Mr. LaBella about the fact that after the memoranda are there, people have the opportunity to read them and carefully consider them -- that we will then have an extensive discussion.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) will include (OFF-MIKE)?
RENO: It will.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) not especially, according to what you told them, until after you completed your review.
RENO: I talked to him Sunday night when he came in to let him know what I anticipated.
But it doesn't make any sense until people have had a
chance to read everybody's memorandum, and we can have a full
and complete discussion.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) what do you (OFF-MIKE) before?
RENO: Hey, you.
QUESTION: Mr. Mica made the point that what was of interest really was the truth -- not a confrontation, not a conflict, not a constitutional crisis -- but the truth. And there has been so much that's been published about both memos, and apparently some -- most of it accurate, although the gentleman wouldn't comment on that. And they simply want to know what is true and what is not.
Could there be some way that Justice could accommodate them about learning what the chairman and the (OFF-MIKE) Republicans, especially knowing what is true in those memos.
RENO: What we have proposed, and what Senator Hatch and Congressman Hyde have accepted as a response to their request for the report, is that when I complete the review, depending on what my decisions are, that I brief them as -- again, I may, depending on what happens, trigger the Independent Counsel Act. I may not. I don't know. I'm trying to keep an open mind and explore all the issues.
And if it is appropriate, if I have not triggered the act, then what I would propose to do is to continue the investigation, and brief the chairman and the ranking member in a confidential briefing on all aspects of the investigation that did not -- and the parts of the report that did not impact on the pending investigation or contain 6(e) material.
QUESTION: With regard to this three weeks, is this three weeks now for your people to familiarize themselves with the LaBella report?
Are you up to speed and ready to make your -- have your input into this at this time?
RENO: What I explained just a moment ago was that we have a
process that we usually try to follow.
For example, the solicitor general, when they -- when he
makes a decision as to what position the government will take,
we'll hear from the various components who have had an interest
in the particular issue or who want to offer their opinion.
They will prepare memoranda and cite cases, and often then, if
there is not a consensus reached, there will be further
discussion. And that's what I would anticipate.
QUESTION: The process needs three more weeks. Is that
RENO: That would be a good way to describe it.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, without looking (OFF-MIKE) to explain at
all in public why you're not seeking an independent counsel?
And such a drum beat in the press and on the Hill, don't you
think that this is really debilitating...
RENO: Are you being a drum beat?
QUESTION: Don't you think this is really debilitating to the
public's perception of the Department of Justice?
RENO: I think the department -- the public understands what
we're trying to do. And I'm going to continue to do everything
I can to make sure that I call it like I see it and that I don't
give in to the drum beat, whether it be from the press or from
the Hill -- that I do it the right way.
And sometimes it's hard. But you wake up the next morning
feeling better about yourself.
QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you said that you had spoken to
Congressman Hyde and Senator Hatch, and were able to reach some
kind of accommodation with them. Did they give you their
reaction to Congressman Burton leveling a threat to -- you know,
give you a contempt citation and all of that? I mean, do you
think you might get some support from them?
RENO: I didn't want to do anything. I think they would have
their own conversations and...
QUESTION: And did you personally speak with Mr. Burton this
morning? And what was his -- if you did, what was his excuse
for refusing to let you come and talk to him?
RENO: He said no, he would not, and that he would be happy
to let me come at some other time.
QUESTION: Is it absolutely (OFF-MIKE) that there are
situations where you have discretion to seek appointment of an
independent counsel when the law does not require you to do so?
RENO: The statute provides for it.
Thank you very much.