Skip to content

Bush administration keeps Reagan records under lock and key

Post categories

  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Jul 20, 2001    

Bush administration keeps Reagan records under lock and key

  • By invoking a little-known executive order, President George W. Bush further delayed the release of 68,000 pages of a former president’s correspondence.

The Bush administration is blocking the release of thousands of President Ronald Reagan’s White House records, despite a law that requires the disclosure of the documents.

The 68,000 pages, which include communications between Reagan and his advisers, are currently in vaults at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. They were supposed to be released in January under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a law passed in the wake of Watergate that was designed to improve openness in government.

But President George W. Bush has twice invoked a little-known executive order signed by Reagan just before he left office to delay releasing the records. The order requires the National Archives and Records Administration to notify the sitting president of the release, giving the White House time to review the papers to determine if they contain sensitive information.

Dozens of officials who serve Bush, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Budget Director Mitchell Daniels, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, also worked for Reagan. Many historians argue that Bush delayed the release to protect those officials from potentially embarrassing information.

“I think what Bush is doing is protecting the people who were in the Reagan administration and his father’s administration who are still around,” American University historian Anna Nelson told Newsday. “I think this is part of that everlasting fear that somebody did something in the past that they can’t remember.”

Before the Presidential Records Act was passed, the president or his family decided which papers would be released to the public. Congress passed the law after former President Richard Nixon tried to withhold tapes and files. Reagan is the first president covered by the law.

Justice Department officials are reviewing the records and looking over the law. White House officials have ordered a detailed legal review of the documents.

Using Reagan’s executive order, Bush has the power to decide which records become public. He also could use executive privilege to shield the documents.

Vanderbilt historian Hugh Graham told the Boston Globe the executive order invoked by Bush is a “trump card” to delay the release of the records.

“This could go on for a long time,” Graham said. “The natural instinct of the presidency … is to keep these things as closed as they can. My fear is that it may work.”


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Return to: RCFP Home; News Page