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Bush Issues Order Curbing Release of Presidential Papers

November 02, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Bush signed an executive order Thursday night allowing either the White House or former presidents to veto release of their presidential papers, drawing criticism from President Clinton and several historians.

The order reinterprets the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which put papers of future presidents in the public domain, following a court fight over President Nixon's papers. It envisioned the release of most sensitive records 12 years after a president had left office.

Administration officials said Bush's order was prompted in part by a request for 68,000 pages of records of President Reagan, the first president whose records are subject to the act.

Under the order, either the incumbent president or the former president--and in some cases, the family of a deceased president--could withhold documents requested by scholars, journalists or others. It also provides that if a former president says the records are privileged, they will remain secret even if the sitting president disagrees. If the sitting president says they are privileged, they will remain secret even if the former president disagrees.

White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales said any decision to withhold documents could be challenged in court, and that the administration would lose if a particular decision did not have solid constitutional grounding.

The order also covers the records of vice presidents.

"There's a recognition of the importance, for historical reasons, of releasing as much information as we can, being mindful of the fact that there may be reasons that it's inappropriate or harmful to this country not to release certain information," Gonzales said. "I think we would err on trying to release as much information as we possibly can."

Gonzales said the administration plans to "give a lot of deference to the former president." But he said the incumbent president "will be in a better position to decide whether or not the release of documents of a former president do, in fact, jeopardize, say, the national security of this country."

Critics, however, said national security is protected by the 1978 act and other laws and regulations.

The order, citing a 1974 Supreme Court ruling, would also require members of the public seeking particular documents to show "at least a 'demonstrated, specific need' " for the records. The Presidential Records Act, enacted in 1978, does not require any showing of need.

"This is a real monster," said Vanderbilt University historian Hugh Graham.

A Clinton aide said a representative of the president objected to the decision in a recent letter to the White House, arguing that sufficient protections are on the books.

"A government's legitimacy is based on the trust of its people, and when decisions are made on behalf of the American people, citizens eventually have to be able to see the process of how those decisions came to be," the aide said. The letter was written by Bruce Lindsey, Clinton's deputy White House counsel and now the lawyer for the William J. Clinton Foundation.

However, Gonzales said a major reason for the new executive order, which rescinds one signed by Reagan, is that the previous one "gives no deference whatsoever to the opinions of a former president."

Historians said vast troves of documents offering insight into presidential decision-making could be lost. The act applies to the papers of Clinton, Reagan and Bush's father, President George Bush.

Many officials of the Reagan and first Bush administration are back in the White House, and critics contend that the executive order may be motivated by a desire to protect them. A House government reform subcommittee headed by Rep. Stephen Horn, (R-Long Beach) will hold a hearing on the dispute Tuesday.

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