When President George W. Bush issued an executive order last Thursday restricting public access to past presidential papers, he took a dangerous step toward stifling the important voice of historians and scholars.
The executive order renders meaningless the Presidential Orders Act of 1978, which required that most sensitive White House records be released to the public 12 years after a president left office.
The new order issued last week returns ultimate authority over which papers are released to the hands of either the current president or the former president whose papers are due to become public.
In the past, the News has been critical of legislation unduly curbing the freedoms and liberties of the American people, specifically members of the academic community, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. While previous proposals threatened to restrict the rights of students, the current order will hamper the scholarship of faculty members.
At the same time, preserving our national security interests is a vital objective, and we must be willing to sacrifice historical scholarship for a short time if it will protect the American people. But unconditionally withholding the Reagan papers, the first set of documents due to be released via the Presidential Orders Act, is not required to preserve national security.
Many suspect that the administration is attempting to repress information contained in the papers that could embarrass current government officials who once worked in the Reagan administration. The administration failed to cite national security concerns when it delayed the release of the documents several times — on Jan. 12, June 21 and Sept. 1 –prior to the terrorist attacks.
More importantly, the 1978 act included provisions allowing the president to withhold documents that would threaten national security. If the Bush administration does not explain why it chose to nullify the act even though it included clauses for protecting national security, historians have a right to clamor for the release of the papers.
As it stands, the executive order poses a long-term threat to the vital work of historians and political scientists attempting to uncover the details of 1980s policy-making. Presidential papers regularly offer some of the most insightful accounts of past White House administrations, and without such information neither students nor governmental officials can adequately learn from past leaders’ mistakes.
For example, the new order constitutes a serious blow to experts examining how the actions of past executive branches in the Middle East may enlighten our current plans for fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations.
Yale historians and scholars must respect Bush administration decisions to withhold some papers out of legitimate national security concerns, but they should actively oppose the administration’s recent order banning the public release of any papers.