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Coalition sues to block order limiting release of Reagan papers

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Nov 28, 2001    

Coalition sues to block order limiting release of Reagan papers

  • Public interest groups and historians allege in a lawsuit that President Bush’s executive order governing the release of Reagan’s White House records circumvents the Presidential Records Act and illegally limits access to records.

A coalition of open-government advocates and two historians today filed a lawsuit in federal court in an effort to overturn a November executive order issued by President Bush. The order was designed to redraft procedures for releasing records of former presidents to the public.

Those filing the lawsuit, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, contend that Executive Order 13233 illegally limits access to those records by circumventing the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

The act, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandals, opened most records of a former president to the public 12 years after the end of his or her administration. But Bush’s order, issued on Nov. 1, allows both a former president and incumbent president to halt the release even after 12 years.

“In effect, the executive order makes the release of records dependent on the good graces of the former president,” said Scott Nelson, an attorney with Public Citizen, which prepared the lawsuit. “The whole point of the Presidential Records Act was to take control of access out of the hands of the former president.”

Congress approved the Presidential Records Act after former President Richard Nixon attempted to hold his papers and tape recordings as personal property. This act made presidential records, starting with Reagan’s, government property. 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 current 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.”

During the delays the administration crafted an executive order that essentially could seal the records indefinitely.

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.

But the groups filing the lawsuit disagree.

“Bush’s executive order violates not only the spirit but the letter of the law,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “We will not stand by while the administration tramples on the people’s right to find out about their own government. The president should not have the ability to arbitrarily withhold public information to hide wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment.”

Some House members expressed concern, too, during a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations earlier this month. They were skeptical that the order would bolster the release of presidential information, as White House officials claim.

Several of the George W. Bush’s 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.

Attorneys with Public Citizen coordinated the effort on behalf of the Reporters Committee, the American Historical Association, the National Security Archive, the Organization of American Historians and two presidential historians.

(American Historical Association v. National Archives; Counsel: Scott Nelson, Washington, D.C.) PT

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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