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Bush blocks release of Reagan White House papers

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Nov 5, 2001    

Bush blocks release of Reagan White House papers

  • Historians and open-government advocates fear that a Nov. 1 executive order could effectively seal unclassified presidential records indefinitely.

When the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in 1996 released all of the records created by the Carter administration, presidential historians such as Vanderbilt University’s Hugh Graham used the documents to bolster a three-day conference the following year analyzing the work of the 39th president.

And as the scheduled Jan. 20, 2001, release of some 68,000 documents from the Reagan administration approached, the historians hoped to create a similar program delving into the successes and problems during the two terms of the nation’s 40th president.

“We figured we would be seeing some good documents,” Graham said. “It takes about a year to look at the documents, so we had scheduled a conference for February 2002.”

But a Nov. 1 executive order signed by President Bush placed the conference on hiatus. And now historians and open-government advocates fear the order effectively could allow former or sitting presidents to close unclassified presidential records indefinitely.

According to the five-page executive order, both the sitting president or a former president have a right to withhold the former president’s papers from the public. Even if the former president wished for his records to be released, the incumbent could stop it.

“Basically, they are attempting to do what Nixon failed to do and that is take complete control over access to the papers forever,” Graham said.

Scott Nelson of Public Citizen said the order allows either a former president or the incumbent to take as much time as necessary to review the documents. If the former president is dead, the order passes review responsibilities on to a designated advisor or to surviving family members.

Presidential records, Nelson said, aren’t documents that should be left to the responsibility of heirs and family members.

The records originally fell under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a post-Watergate measure that became law after former President Richard Nixon attempted to hold on to his papers and tape recordings as personal property. This act made presidential records, starting with Reagan’s, government property. The law mandated that the records become public after 12 years.

The 12-year period for the Reagan papers expired in January.

But an executive order signed by Reagan in the final days of his administration required the National Archives to notify the current president about pending disclosure of the records.

The Bush administration followed with a series of requests to the National Archives to delay the release of the records. In letters, the White House claimed it sought the extensions “to review the many constitutional and legal questions raised by the potential release of sensitive and confidential presidential records and to decide the proper legal framework and process to employ in reviewing such records.”

But in reality, the administration used the delays to craft an executive order that essentially seals the records indefinitely.

Some say the president worried about the content of the records because some of his top aides and his father, then vice president, all worked under Reagan. These aides include Secretary of State Colin Powell, Budget Director Mitchell Daniels Jr., Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and several others.

In press briefings, both White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and spokesman Ari Fleischer denied that the order was designed to prevent embarrassing records from seeing light. Instead, they said the order was crafted to ensure that national security would not be compromised; however, Nelson noted that the act does not require any release of classified records.

Graham said the order destroys a records-releasing process that seemed to be working well. He doubted that national security, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, played a part in the decision-making.

“Whether they planned this draconian order before Sept. 11, I don’t know,” Graham said. “But this really shows brass. But if we don’t challenge this in court, they win.”

A hearing on the Presidential Records Act before the House Committee on Government Reform is scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 6 in Room 2145 of the Rayburn building.

(Exec. Order 13233) PT

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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