Robert Novak

 The latter view seemed confirmed as I listened to Chertoff at that 2001 Christmas party. He was inflexible about executive privilege, arguing that there never was any need for the executive branch to grant demands for documents from the legislative branch. It was a maximalist position for executive power. Thanks to Chairman Burton's persistence, however, the FBI material eventually was turned over to the committee. But no financial compensation has been granted to the families of victims of the FBI killings.

 In Chertoff's remaining year at the Justice Department, he frequently was the man who said no -- rejecting requests for documents. By the spring of 2002, it was clear that Bush's Justice Department was not going to investigate the Clinton administration's use of Internal Revenue Service scrutiny on critics of Bill Clinton. The watchdog organization Judicial Watch provided substantial evidence of IRS harassment, but Chertoff denied that any pattern had been established.

 By the time Bush nominated Chertoff to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals two years ago, Judicial Watch was loaded and ready. It raised the old question of misusing FBI resources -- claiming an extended pattern when Chertoff was U.S. attorney for New Jersey (1990-94).

 Chertoff had been well regarded on both sides of the aisle as Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's chief counsel in the Whitewater investigation and enjoyed soft confirmation treatment. Three days after receiving Judicial Watch's mass of purported evidence, the Judiciary Committee quickly voted to confirm Chertoff (with Democratic senators abstaining). The committee's inquiry consisted of asking Chertoff about the charges, and he said they were not true.

 There are no signs of a serious effort to block Chertoff's confirmation for the Cabinet or even slow it down. But the process can provide insight into a high government official's outlook, and difficult questions might well be asked in the case of Michael Chertoff. Does he still believe in unlimited privilege to withhold from Congress even information of criminal activity in the executive branch? Why did he block investigation of IRS harassment? Is there any validity to charges that he misused FBI mob resources in New Jersey?

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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