In a controversial move that has elicited opposition from historians and political scientists across the nation, President George W. Bush ’68 issued an executive order last Thursday giving the current president and former presidents the right to withhold records from the public.
Several lawmakers and historical organizations are attempting to challenge Bush’s order, claiming it is a direct violation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. The act requires documents to be released 12 years after a president has left office.
“The presidential act says those records are the public’s property,” said Bruce Craig, executive director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. “But the new order allows them to selectively release materials so we get a contorted view of history.”
White House officials have said the executive order is a matter of national security.
But in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Craig said there are already safeguards against the release of information that could jeopardize national security.
Political science professor Mark Stein said he agreed with Bush’s order, especially in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Theoretically, it could be a breach of national security,” Stein said. “If a former president’s records contained secret information that is classified, the government should not have to disclose them, especially if they contain any military secrets.”
History Chairman Jon Butler said he disagreed with the idea because documents that are 10 or 15 years old do not damage national security.
And the Bush administration may have had ulterior motives for the order, history professor John Gaddis said. He said Bush was working on the order prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, so withholding the documents was not a matter of national security.
“I think it’s being done more as a concern of embarrassment,” Gaddis said. “There are some obvious sensitivities since some people who are in the Bush administration also served under [Ronald] Reagan.”
Craig told the News that historians are concerned with how the Reagan administration made its decisions, not with embarrassing information.
But history professor Daniel Kevles said he disagrees with the executive order regardless of the reasons behind it.
“By and large, it’s bad news and bad precedent,” Kevles said.
Reagan’s papers are the first to fall under this act. Although 68,000 documents from his presidency were supposed to be released this January, the Bush administration has already delayed it three times.
Butler said this order will hinder the work of historians.
“I think most any historian is upset about it and finds it detrimental,” Butler said. “It doesn’t allow access to operative government documents, so it only has one purpose: to obscure our knowledge of past events.”
But Gaddis said the order will not significantly affect historical research immediately because serious work on the Reagan administration probably will not begin for another 10 years. Currently, historians are beginning to conduct substantial research on the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency.
Gaddis said he was also unsure of how much help those documents would have been.
“I’m a little skeptical as to how much information was going to be released anyway,” he said. “I would’ve been rather surprised if a vast amount of information had been released under the act.”
For Butler, democracy and openness were the larger issues at stake.
“This is the U.S. after all,” Butler said. “This isn’t the old Soviet Union and the government sometimes acts as though it is.”
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