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Letter to the Secretary of Defense Directing Him To Withhold Certain Information from the Senate Committee on Government Operations.

May 17, 1954

Dear Mr. Secretary:

It has long been recognized that to assist the Congress in achieving its legislative purposes every Executive Department or Agency must, upon the request of a Congressional Committee, expeditiously furnish information relating to any matter within the jurisdiction of the Committee, with certain historical exceptions--some of which are pointed out in the attached memorandum from the Attorney General. This Administration has been and will continue to be diligent in following this principle. However, it is essential to the successful working of our system that the persons entrusted with power in any one of the three great branches of Government shall not encroach upon the authority confided to the others. The ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the Executive Branch rests with the President.

Within this Constitutional framework each branch should cooperate fully with each other for the common good. However, throughout our history the President has withheld information whenever he found that what was sought was confidential or its disclosure would be incompatible with the public interest or jeopardize the safety of the Nation.

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 documents or reproductions. This principle must be maintained regardless of who would be benefited by such disclosures.

I direct this action so as to maintain the proper separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Government in accordance with my responsibilities and duties under the Constitution. This separation is vital to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power by any branch of the Government.

By this action I am not in any way restricting the testimony of such witnesses as to what occurred regarding any matters where the communication was directly between any of the principals in the controversy within the Executive Branch on the one hand and a member of the Subcommittee or its staff on the other.



Note: Attorney General Brownell's memorandum of March 2, 1954, was released with the President's letter. The memorandum traces the development from Washington's day of the principle that the President may, under certain circumstances, withhold information from the Congress.

Taking the doctrine of separation of powers as his text, the Attorney General stated that it is essential to the successful working of the American system that the persons entrusted with power in any one of the three branches should not be permitted to encroach upon the powers confided to the others.

The memorandum continues: "For over 150 years . . . our Presidents have established, by precedent, that they and members of their Cabinet and other heads of executive departments have an undoubted privilege and discretion to keep confidential, in the public interest, papers and information which require secrecy. American history abounds in countless illustrations of the refusal, on occasion, by the President and heads of departments to furnish papers to Congress, or its committees, for reasons of public policy. The messages of our past Presidents reveal that almost every one of them found it necessary to inform Congress of his constitutional duty to execute the office of President, and, in furtherance of that duty, to withhold information and papers for the public good."

As for the courts, they have "uniformly held that the President and the heads of departments have an uncontrolled discretion to withhold... information and papers in the public interest; they will not interfere with the exercise of that discretion, and that Congress has not the power, as one of the three great branches of the Government, to subject the Executive Branch to its will any more than the Executive Branch may impose its unrestrained will upon the Congress."

Among the precedents cited in the Attorney General's memorandum are the following:

President Washington, in 1796, was presented with a House Resolution requesting him to furnish copies of correspondence and other papers relating to the Jay Treaty with Great Britain as a condition to the appropriation of funds to implement the treaty. In refusing, President Washington replied "I trust that no part of my conduct has ever indicated a disposition to withhold any information which the Constitution has enjoined upon the President as a duty to give, or which could be required of him by either House of Congress as a right; and with truth I affirm that it has been, as it will continue to be while I have the honor to preside in the Government, my constant endeavor to harmonize with the other branches thereof so far as the trust delegated to me by the people of the United States and my sense of the obligation it imposes to 'preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution' will permit."

President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1909, when faced with a Senate Resolution directing his Attorney General to furnish documents relating to proceedings against the U.S. Steel Corporation, took possession of the papers. He then informed Senator Clark of the Judiciary Committee that the only way the Senate could get them was through impeachment. The President explained that some of the facts were given to the Government under the seal of secrecy and could not be divulged. He added "and I will see to it that the word of this Government to the individual is kept sacred."

"During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt," the Attorney General's memorandum states, "there were many instances in which the President and his Executive heads refused to make available certain information to Congress the disclosure of which was deemed to be confidential or contrary to the public interest." Five such cases are cited, including one in which "communications between the President and the heads of departments were held to be confidential and privileged and not subject to inquiry by a committee of one of the Houses of Congress."

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Letter to the Secretary of Defense Directing Him To Withhold Certain Information from the Senate Committee on Government Operations. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232005

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