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Shane, the Ohio State professor, said: “Executive privilege is really an umbrella concept that encompasses a variety of privileges. History’s most famous claim of executive privilege — President Richard Nixon’s unsuccessful attempt to withhold the Watergate tapes — was an example of ‘presidential privacy privilege.’ That privilege covers executive communications when the president is involved.”

He said the executive branch historically claims a much broader privilege, the so-called deliberative privilege. That claim tries to protect documents generated anywhere in the executive branch that embody only the executive’s internal deliberations, not final policy decisions. The current dispute involves deliberative privilege, he said.

Issa quoted from a 1997 case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in which the court said the privilege should not extend to staff outside the White House in executive branch agencies.

Rather, the court said, it should apply only to “communications authored or solicited and received by those members of an immediate White House adviser’s staff” with responsibility for formulating advice for the president.

However, the case which Issa repeatedly cited in his letter distinguishes carefully between the “presidential communications privilege” and the “deliberative process privilege.” In that case, the court dealt only with the presidential communication privilege but observed that both the communications privilege and the deliberative privilege are executive privileges designed to protect the confidentiality of executive branch decision-making. It’s the deliberative process privilege that Obama invoked in the current dispute over Operation Fast and Furious.

President George W. Bush invoked executive privilege for the first time in his administration to block a congressional committee trying to review documents about a decades-long scandal involving FBI misuse of mob informants in Boston.

Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this story.