The organization, role and operation of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which produces binding interpretations of the law for the executive branch, are usefully described in the Justice Department’s FY 2010 budget request (pdf).
“OLC’s mission remains highly critical and urgent as the Department enters into a new era of responsibility confronting national security and intelligence challenges, reinvigorating federal civil rights enforcement, and advising the myriad of agencies involved in responding to the economic crisis,” the budget request document states. “The Office is operating at a particularly challenging time, when a number of major legal positions of the United States government are under review or in the process of being changed.”
Under the Bush Administration, the OLC notoriously issued numerous opinions — many of which would later be withdrawn under criticism — authorizing abusive interrogation, warrantless surveillance, and other departures from established legal norms. The President’s distinguished nominee to head the Office, Prof. Dawn Johnsen, still awaits Senate confirmation and she reportedly faces opposition from some Senate Republicans.