Bush should honor Presidential Records Act

Governments throughout history have seized crisis times as a way to expand their power in the name of preserving order and safety. As Sept. 11 turns from humanitarian tragedy into political spoils, this pattern is, predictably, repeating itself.

In the most visible of recent government efforts to control information about what happens in the nation’s capitol, President Bush has defied the Presidential Records Act and refused to release some 68,000 pages of documents from the Reagan administration. Under the law, passed largely in response to Watergate, confidential communications between a president and his aides must be released to the public 12 years after the president leaves office. Reagan is the first president to have his papers governed by the act, but Bush has repeatedly delayed the release of the documents. He also signed an executive order Friday giving an incumbent or former president the right to withhold these priceless pieces of history from the public. Conspicuously absent from the president’s decision is any mention of the national security exception built into the act, leading many to conclude the president wants only to protect former Reagan aides in the current administration from embarrassment.

This was exactly the heavy-handed power grab the Presidential Records Act was designed to prevent. The inside stories of presidential decision-making during the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Iran-contra affair and Watergate are available to the public and scholars because the papers chronicling these historic events have been released. They show the government in action and provide crucial information for citizens attempting to participate in politics, evaluate current policy decisions and assess what characteristics they will look for in future office-seekers.

Bush is not alone, however, in wanting to keep government paperwork from the public. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal agencies last month to use caution in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, and the administration is also reconsidering a Clinton executive order declassifying federal agency documents.

Increased guardedness around papers with sensitive national security information is certainly warranted by the events of the past few weeks, but the scope of the Bush administration’s wholesale crackdown on information makes these decisions appear to be merely creatures of convenience cloaked in the oversized robes of “national security.” The administration should ponder how far the executive branch has fallen since President Harry Truman, who, dealing with his own set of national security problems, declared, “My papers will be the property of the people and be accessible to them. And this is as it should be. The papers of the presidents are among the most valuable sources of material for history. They ought to be preserved, and they ought to be used.”