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House subcommittee reviews Bush edict on Reagan records

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Nov 6, 2001    

House subcommittee reviews Bush edict on Reagan records

  • Expressing skepticism over administration claims that a new executive order bolsters the release of presidential information, congressmen and panel witnesses said they fear that Bush’s actions effectively return policies governing release of presidential papers to the days of Watergate.

Presidential historians and political scientists in testimony before a House subcommittee today expressed concern that a presidential order governing the release of President Reagan’s White House records highlights a disturbing trend of secrecy in the current administration.

Mark Rozell, a professor at Catholic University, said the order, combined with President Bush’s reluctance to give Congress information about the current war and other matters, displays “an emerging pattern” of a president using executive privilege to avoid turning over documents.

“The administration will be able to withhold just about any materials going back many years as long as someone in the administrations utters the words ‘national security’ or ‘prosecutorial.'” Rozell said. “Congress and the American public have an interest in making sure that does not happen.”

Today’s hearing before the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations came days after Bush on Nov. 1 signed an executive order which effectively halted the release of some 68,000 documents from the Reagan administration, gives both the sitting president and a former president a right to withhold the former president’s papers from the public.

The subcommittee originally scheduled the hearing to consider the implementation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which governs the release of presidential records. But the hearing focused on Bush’s order, which witnesses said scuttled the law.

The Presidential Records Act mandated that presidential records, starting with Reagan’s, were government records. The law further required that the records become public within 12 years of a president leaving office unless there is a legitimate exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act to keep them sealed.

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

National Archivist John Carlin testified that national archivists worked closely with Reagan associates and Reagan Presidential Library officials to ensure that none of the 68,000 pages of documents contained sensitive security or privileged information. They found none among the records, he said.

While Reagan associates did not exert any privilege over the records, the Bush administration, using a notification requirement mandated by an executive order signed by Reagan, requested three extensions to review the records.

But Carlin said White House officials never examined the actual records. For the last several months, they crafted an executive order with some help from the National Archives, he said. White House officials said Bush’s order, Executive Order 13233, created specific procedures to disclose the records.

In testimony, Carlin said his job as national archivist requires him to adhere to the provisions of the Presidential Records Act using Executive Order 13233 as his guide.

“I’m afraid he’s taking on an impossible task,” said Scott Nelson with the Public Citizen Litigation Group.

Nelson told the subcommittee that Reagan’s previous order, Executive Order 12667, adequately provided guidelines for release of the records. But he said the Bush order created new ones that run contrary to the goals of the Presidential Records Act.

M. Edward Whelan, an acting assistant attorney general, said Bush’s order does not substantially change Reagan’s order but only clarifies some of the wording in releasing the records.

Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) was not so sure, expressing concern that the president’s order attempts to hide embarrassing information.

“If there is no intended change, then why the change in the wording?” Ose asked.

He added that he is proud that Reagan released most of his records soon after his presidency ended.

“When Reagan finished his work, he was ready to put it in the public domain,” said Ose, commenting on the fact that more than 5.3 million records from the Reagan era are already available to the public. “It was one of the most impressive things he did. He had faith in the citizens of this country.”

(Executive Order 13233) PT

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