President George W. Bush’s executive order that stopped the release of historically valuable documents from previous presidential administrations needs to be overturned or overruled. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 provides that most of a former president’s records will be made available 12 years after that president leaves office. But Bush used an executive order to allow former presidents to deny access to their records indefinitely, and further he ordered that vice presidential records be given similar protection.
Those who don’t remember the follies of the past are damned to repeat them. And while those follies might lie in an epic disaster, they more frequently can be found in some obscure detail. Searching for these details is the trade of historians and journalists who daily scour dusty drawers of forgotten filling cabinets, piecing together the past to better understand the present. But when professional documentarians are denied access to these drawers – both proverbial and literal – they are unable to contextualize information that would enable people to prevent repeat mistakes as well as refine the successes of the past for use in the present.
Historians, journalists and academics have filed a lawsuit contending the president’s executive order violates the Presidential Records Act. More than 20 years ago Congress recognized the need to open up presidential documents, which they say belong to the public, in order to better serve the country. This need hasn’t changed. There are too many valuable lessons and historically significant events delineated in these old documents to allow the papers to waste away outside the public sphere, especially since some of those lessons were learned by officials currently serving in this administration.
The Bush administration has been far too secretive with records usually made available. For instance, Vice President Dick Cheney refused to give the General Accounting Office records from secretly held energy meetings with companies like Enron. The GAO has since filed suit to get the documents. And Bush placed his own gubernatorial records in his father’s Presidential library where they are now – according to Bush’s order – inaccessible to the public indefinitely. Then there is Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Oct. 12 memo urging all federal agencies to resist Freedom of Information Act requests.
Some cite national security as a reason not to make this information available. But neither of the aforementioned acts requires releasing classified information and the Presidential Records Act provides a process through which the president withhold information deemed privileged.
Thursday, an unusual but welcome mix of Republican and Democratic legislators introduced a bill reaffirming the 1978 act. Yet the problem might not be passing the popular bill through Congress but rather getting the president to sign it and recognize his error – so that we can recognize the errors and successes of previous presidents.