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White House to release some Reagan papers

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Jan 3, 2002    

White House to release some Reagan papers

  • Plans by the White House to release 8,000 pages from the Ronald Reagan presidency today will not deter a lawsuit by civil libertarians and historians for release of the 68,000 pages of Reagan era papers scheduled for release a year ago.

The National Archives and Records Administration plans to make public today some 8,000 documents from the Reagan administration, nearly a year after they were due for release under the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

The papers, a portion of some 68,000 pages of Reagan’s confidential papers, mark the first release of documents after President Bush drafted a hotly criticized executive order designed to redraft procedures for releasing records of former presidents to the public.

The Presidential Records Act, passed after the Watergate scandals, opened most records of a former president to the public 12 years after the end of his 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.

A coalition of historians and open-government advocates, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a federal lawsuit on Nov. 28, claiming that Executive Order 13233 illegally limits access to those records by circumventing the law. The announced release did not affect that lawsuit.

But White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, in a Dec. 20 guest column that appeared in the Washington Post, said the initial release debunks claims that the order stifled release of presidential records.

“For months skeptics have questioned President Bush’s motives in establishing these sensible procedures,” Gonzales wrote. “The order, they said, was an affront to open government and would put procedural roadblocks in the way of disclosure of important historical information. The critics were wrong.”

Gonzales wrote further that the executive order actually improved the release process. More papers are expected to be released before the end of the month.

Congress approved the Presidential Records Act after former President Richard Nixon attempted to hold his papers and tape recordings as personal property. The act made presidential records, starting with Reagan’s, government property. The 12-year period for the Reagan papers expired in January 2001.

The Bush administration ordered a delay ostensibly to give it time to review the papers but in reality to craft the executive order.

The order, those filing the lawsuit claim, effectively reverts power of disclosure back to the executive office, a move that could keep such records sealed indefinitely.

Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson, the lead attorney for the groups filing the lawsuit, said it appears the White House is “trying to get as much stuff out as they can, possibly all of it, before they respond to our lawsuit and perhaps try to say this issue isn’t ripe.”

But Nelson said the issue of presidential records remains pertinent whether all 68,000 documents are released or not.

“The 68,000 documents are not the only Reagan material that will be subject to this order. They just happen to be the ones on the table,” said Nelson, noting that the vice-presidential records of Bush’s father also are involved. “So our position will remain that this is a live issue regardless of what happens to these particular documents.”

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

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