Executive branch officials understandably seek to maximize their authority to regulate the distribution and disclosure of classified national security information, and they often cite historical precedents dating back to the days of President George Washington to justify their claims. But though some members of Congress seem not to realize it, Congress has an independent claim to access such information, a claim with its own historical foundation.
A new analysis (pdf) by Louis Fisher of the Law Library of Congress provides a nuanced account of several episodes from the Washington Administration that tend to refute the more expansive views of executive branch authority over classified information.
“Upon closer examination, precedents from the Washington Administration do not support the claim of exclusive and plenary authority by the President,” Dr. Fisher writes. “The scope of the President’s power over national defense and foreign affairs depends very much on what Congress does in asserting its own substantial authorities in those areas,” he concludes. See “Congressional Access to National Security Information: Precedents from the Washington Administration” by Louis Fisher, Law Library of Congress, May 22, 2009.