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Congress-Executive clash possible if panel seeks Haig-Nixon tape log

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to decide at its next business meeting, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 24, whether to pursue the issue of the Haig-Nixon tapes log.

The issue arose during committee confirmation hearings on the fitness of Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. to be secretary of state. At that time the committee issued a subpoena to the National Archives for the log of 338 conversations between General Haig and former President Nixon during the period May 4 to July 18, 1973, when Haig was White House chief of staff.

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The committee was denied the log of 100 hours of Haig-Nixon conversations by the national archivist, Dr. Robert Warner, following Mr. Nixon's legal objections to their release. At the time, Dr. Warner said he rejected some of Nixon's legal reasons -- executive privilege, for instance -- but was refusing to hand over the logs to the committee because he felt it was "most unlikely the committee's subpoena could survive a court challenge."

Some experts have assumed that the subsequent confirmation of General Haig as secretary of state weakened the subpoena's force to such a degree that the issue is null and void. But a highly placed committee source stresses that the subpoena is "still outstanding" and the Haig-Nixon tapes log issue still open for action. The source says it is unknown at this point what committee members will decide to do, but that if they decide to pursue the subpoena, one course of action is most likely.

The source says that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could decide to go to court on the issue -- in this case the same US district court in which the Watergate coverup trial was held. Such a decision would require a vote of the full Senate. The source points out that the subpoena is a command, an order of the Senate, and suggests that a factor promoting further action might be the sense that the honor of the Senate is on the line.

Such a step could result in a classic battle involving all three branches of government, with the legislative (Senate) pitted against the executive (National Archives) on an issue to be decided by the judicial. Such a battle could go on for years.

During the confirmation hearings, some members of the committee questioned Haig fiercely about several Watergate-related topics, but he totally denied any knowledge or involvement. After Haig was confirmed, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois went on the record as saying he felt there was no point in pursuing the matter any further. Senator Percy now refuses to comment on whether the committee will pursue the Haig-Nixon tapes log issue or, if it does, what its alternatives might be.

The lawyer who was counsel for the National Archives at the time the Haig-Nixon tapes were reviewed and logged suggests that if action were taken, two other alternatives might be possible. Steven Garfinkel, director of the information security oversight office of the General Services Administration, which supervises the Archives, says the archivist could be asked to reconsider his decision and presented with arguments as to why it was wrong.

A second alternative, one he considers too extreme, would be for the committee to go to the full Senate seeking some sort of contempt citation against the archivist. Mr. Garfinkel considers the judicial action mentioned earlier to be the most likely course, if the matter were pursued. But he adds that he doesn't think the committee will take the issue any further.

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